EWaste: Where We Go With What We Know? (AFRICA)

I'm an optimist about the future, not an apologist for the present.  Recoiling from poverty is not the same thing as compassion.  We have to get our hands dirty helping Africa, not just keep our consciences in shiny isolation.  
Scientific study, UN participation, interviews with importers and exporters, surveys by ISRI, mapping of transport by geographers, measure of display sale shipments, measure of growth of online access... in the past ten years we've learned a lot about electronic scrap recycling that we didn't know when "exporting harm" (NGO's first video) hit the circuit.

Some in the OECD* want us to think there are still too many unknowns to "risk trade" with surplus electronics overseas.   But with what we know, where do we go to make progress for the 83% of the world in "non-OECD" countries?



What happens to "E-Waste" In Africa?

 -    Most of the junk being burned by kids was in use for years, collected from offices and homes in Accra.

 -    Most of the money and jobs in the African recycling economy come from the added value of repair and refurbishing.  There are 30,000 technicians, only a few hundred "scrap boys".

 -    Most technicians prefer to work on electronics from rich people which they can resell and reuse.

 -    Most of the scrap boys have no other place to go except war, drugs, mining, and crime.

 -    Most end-of-life computers are hand-disassembled, which adds economic and environmental value -  
    stripped to the bone for reuse and parts potential, and every metal is graded and cleaned.

 -    Rich in Africa get new computers, middle class get used computers, the poor inherit the scrap.  The
       problem in the imagery poverty.  Poor won't get richer via economic isolation.


Who has the Supply of Electronic Scrap, surplus and waste in the USA?

 -    Most wealthy generators of technology are risk averse, won't risk to be accused  of dumping.

 -    Most wealthy generators of new technology buy new (upgrade) rather than repair and reuse.

 -    Most wealthy generators of new technology live in states which ban the export of used computers.

 -    Most recyclers of technology don't have time or experience in Africa.

 -    Most of the "worst e-waste" is processed in the USA, clean scrap value is sold on world markets.


What happens to surplus electronics in the USA?

 -    Most businesses who export to Africa don't get big contracts which ban export to Africa.

 -    Most Africans who buy from the USA don't buy from companies with big contracts in USA.

 -    Most containers of electronics, copiers, displays, unloaded in Africa are sourced from smaller e-waste
      businesses without the capacity to shred the bad and buy new.

 -    Most domestic reuse techs prefer first dibs on USA laptops, servers and computers.


What does Fair Trade Recycling do?

 -    Creates a trading window for big USA companies to sell their best stuff to African Techs.

 -    Gives wherewithal and incentives to Africans to adapt best recycling practices.

 -    Provides for 3rd party verification and mediation when best laid plans go wrong (containers tipped,
      demand changes, expectations aren't met).


Who Opposes Fair Trade Recycling?

 -    Companies which have invested millions in shredding and e-Stewards Standards.

 -    Refurbishers who see "tested working" as guarantee against competition from African Techs.

 -    New Manufacturers who see market cannibalization in reuse and refurbishing markets.

 -    Junk sellers who like the idea that "export is good" but don't want 3rd party verification and mediation.

 -    Dictators who want internet to be difficult and expensive, accessible only to the connected.

 -    Software companies with concerns about spread of unlicensed ware in unlicenseable nations.

 -    Legitimate E-Scrap Recyclers with concerns about an under-funded "certification" process.

How Do We Jump-Start Fair Trade Recycling?  (Suggestions wanted)


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* OECD = Obsessive Electronic Consumption and Demand Nations (tips hat to Slashdot submitter)



Slashdot is known for modding up common sense observations as "insightful".  With the economic weight of the combined bias against Fair Trade Recycling above (and we haven't even named the opposition NGO),  how do we proceed?  What we have in our favor is that most people with an old surplus PC don't care all that much.  They care just enough to have an opinion.  And the common people have common sense.  Our job today is to make a fair trade policy which passes the straight face test and is easily communicated to the average Euro-Japo-American, liberal tea partier.  Generators in OECD want "EWaste" infrastructure to be economical, sustainable, and simple.  Africans, too, want value, sustainability, and appropriate technology.

Common Sense: Appropriate, Fair Electronics Recycling

A little common sense about "e-waste" and used computers can go a long way to developing a high-employment, low-mining, highly connected, democratic emerging market.  That market may make short term compromises about gray market, counterfeiting, and corner-cutting health and safety.  So did we.

My view is that I don't want my neighbor to be unsafe working on his roof... I have a gut fear seeing him climb around up there to patch the huge hole.  But I know he has a family inside, and it rains and freezes, so I can't blame him for doing what he's gotta do to patch that hole.   I can forgive myself for feeling a little resentment that we recently paid thousands to fix our own roof, "by the book".

When his house is fixed, the value of his home will go way up.  When the value of his home goes up, mine will too.  This is how allowing emerging nations to emerge helps us all.  America may feel it's losing its position as other nations catch up to us.  But the goal of Alter-Globalization is to be happy with a neighbor who is now as connected, as safe, and as healthy, and even as wealthy, as we are.

In the meantime, I earned a little extra cash selling my neighbor a hammer and saw, and some surplus pliwood.  He and his family came to our yard and we had drinks.  Our kids played ultimate frisbee and soccer (football) in the yard.  They had a larger yard to play ball on, by moving the goal posts onto the neighbors lawn, and my kids now learn by playing with superior competition, learning superior plays.

1 comment:

WR3A's Robin Ingenthron said...

"People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it." - George Bernard Shaw