Spinning: Where are WEee in Africa Study 2011

Readers know I'm following the coverage of the UN studies of Africa (Where are WEee in Africa" 2011) with great interest.  Elizabeth at IFIXIT wrote a good piece, which was hommaged at Treehugger.  The USA Voice of America (which, having lived in Africa, is important), covers the story pretty well, as does Science Daily.

You will remember we covered the first releases of the report HERE at Good Point Ethical Recycling blog in April, 2011, and have been squealing like pigs for 10 months, trying to get attention to it.

For those of us working and trying to help these emerging nations, there are babies in the e-waste bathwater.
The value of this informal economy is difficult to gauge, although the formal and informal income of those engaged in the e-waste sector in Ghana is estimated to be between $106 million and $268 million per year. VOANews.com
The goal of our Fair Trade Recycling is to make this better, not worse.  But we have to be realistic about banning the trade, taking the jobs away without studying them, as HR2284 will do.  End of life and lifecycle science is spinning in its grave.

Where the loads were studied most carefully (176 containers analyzed in Lagos), 70% were fully functional, and half of the remainder were repaired... that's 85% reuse.  Moreover, the report says what we've been saying - this is a huge opportunity, if done correctly (e.g. with fair trade):
In contrast to the informal recycling sector, where collection and recycling of E-waste is almost exclusively carried out by individuals largely consisting of migrant laborers who are often stigmatized in African societies as «scavengers», refurbishment is viewed as a relatively attractive economic opportunity for an increasingly well-educated, semi-professional labor force. In Accra (Ghana) and Lagos (Nigeria), the refurbishing sector provides income to more than 30,000 people.
The report is not without all kinds of caveats and cautions.  Clearly the authors are sensitive to the controversy of the imports of "e-waste" they are studying.

Here's a piece of friendly advice.  If you are a white European expert on environment, and someone comes to you for a quote on the UN Study, you might want to read at least the executive summary.  If you are a reporter, like Cal Milmo of the Independent, you may want to dig a bit next time a Nigerian is convicted of exporting e-waste.

UPDATE NOTE:  I've now met Susanne Dittke of Envirosense via Skype.  She is very smart and very interested in getting to the facts.  She was alarmed that her quote was used as it was in the article below and has contacted the reporter to retract it, said she had not read the UN Report and hadn't realized the article was about something she hadn't even seen...     

I've left some of the original "reaction" to the quote as it appeared in the trade press, but I do not want to imply any ill will on Susanne's part.  Her role as the consultant to this South African e-waste recycling plant is extremely important.   I'll write more about it in a future post.  The use of her quote to "spin" the UNEP report was well in my no-fly zone, but she is a top notch asset to the discussion so long as the reporter tells her what the heck she is commenting on.

We have been carefully documenting this trade, partly to protect ourselves from the accusations of "Watchdogs".   We film our loads (producing the WR3A video on shipment to Senegal in 2007), and film, photograph, and interview Geeks of Color like Wahab Muhammed of Accra.  We don't want the profiling to wind up putting us, or our partners, in jail, publicly accused, as the Cal Milmo UK Independent did to this poor Nigerian in 2009 (the year the UN study began).  We saw how the Watchdogs treated one of our best and brightest, clean and ISO140001 refurbishing factories in Indonesia in 2010.  If you are going to date an African, better make sure he has all his papers or you may spend your evening at the police station.
“We can grow Africa’s economies, generate decent employment and safeguard the environment by supporting sustainable e-waste management and recovering the valuable metals and other resources locked inside products that end up as e-waste,” said United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) Executive Director and UN Under-Secretary General Achim Steiner in a statement.  “In the run-up to Rio+20 in June, this report shows how measures such as improved collection strategies and establishing more formal recycling structures, can limit environmental damage and provide economic opportunities.” (earthtechling.com)
Sadly, the BS started already.  A German helper in South Africa has been quoted on a study she clearly never read.  (She followed through and made the reporter retract her quote below, good for her, MY HEAD WAS SPINNING.

IT Web Africa.  The first two thirds of the half page story are fine, focusing on the generation of e-waste coming from within Africa.  Then someone named Susanne Dittke of Envirosense gets quoted (without explanation of her expertise) and says the following:
Copper and printed wire boards are materials from electronics that collectors sell on to recyclers, said Susanne Dittke from EnviroSense.
However, Dittke said those who dismantle the products potentially expose themselves to poisonous chemicals such as mercury and lead, and she said collectors in that part of the world need to be educated about the dangers of exposing themselves to those substances.
Dittke also said the problem of e-waste in West Africa is exacerbated by second-hand devices that are exported from places such as Europe to countries such as Nigeria.
“In the West African countries, there's a huge problem in terms of the external stream of e-waste. Seventy to ninety percent of those goods are not in a functioning state, so essentially what people import is e-waste.”
Check this quote out.  "Seventy to ninety percent of those goods are not in a functioning state, so essentially what people import is e-waste". 

This is commentary on a two year study in four nations which says that 70% is working (Nigeria and Ghana) and that half of the other 30 percent is repaired.  The study says there are hundreds of scrap boys, but 30 thousand African repair geeks in Ghana alone, and that

My guess is that Ms. Dittke is a nice person, and probably gets her news from Greenpeace.

Ms. Dittke returned my email this AM and clarified:
"I received a phone call last week and had a very short telephonic chat to the person who wrote this article. I was not even aware that this was published until you alerted me to it and I most certainly did not state to the author such numbers as a personally scientifically researched fact. He kept on pressing for numbers and asked me for an estimate.  From various visits I did to Ghana, Nigeria and Senegal witnessing the contents of some shipping containers first-hand when they were opened for control inspections and talking to customs harbour authorities in charge of controlling this was the information provided to me as ESTIMATES."

This is how these numbers get around.  Someone repeats something they have heard, and the quote gets attached to something - a photo of a poor child, a press release about a proposed law, or in this case an actual comprehensive study with a very different statistic - and the damage goes on and on. StEP be dammed.

This is also how the internet gets us to improve and get facts straight.  Ms. Dittke was clearly alarmed by the article, and as we followed up, she sent me an invitation to a big E-Waste pow-wow in Kenya.  More to come...

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