Debate, Dialectic, Diablog: IPhone #ewaste Graphic Misleads

Diablogs and Wiki-Greeks
A couple of weeks ago, I was sent a new set of graphics, in the spirit of "Story of Stuff", by umm... students? activists? artists?... seeking to raise awareness about the IPhone.   A woman named J.Rhee sent me an advance copy and asked for my comments.   I sent her some, in the spirit of cooperation, but did not hear back.  

Elizabeth Chamberlin of IFIXIT (soon to take away the crown for the "Best Scrap Blogger in the World"*) has written about the Apple-criticism piece, and does a good job of examining the case against Apple without taking it hook, line and sinker.

The Anti-IPhone-graphic-activists display a lot of talent, sincere passion, and make some very valid points.  They asked my opinion rather nicely, and I'm always looking for mature, grown-up conversations with environmentalists.  But I'm disappointed not to have heard back from the authors of the piece.  Below is a snippet of the dialogue, followed by my response and comments.

Hi Robin,Thanks for getting back to me. The graphic I was referring to lives here:  Let me know what you think. I’d love to get your thoughts, and feel free to use it as you’d like!Thanks again, Jen
Hi Jen,

I really like the lifecycle focus on mining, coltan, etc.   I lived in Africa and was in Rwanda, Burundi and DR Congo for awhile.   The natural resources harvesting business has been a curse. The Worlds Most Polluted Places (TIME) are metal mines, not recycling yards.

With that said, I think your graphic is pretty unfair to Terry Gou and Foxconn (Han Hoi Precision)...  The Taiwanese "Geeks of Color" like Gou and Simon Lin (Wistron) and Rowell Yang (Proview) have been "racially profiled" by the left in the USA, I think.  All three of those guys began as a "tinkerer" importing and repairing used electronics, then became a contract manufacturer (like Foxconn is for ... um... everyone not just Apple).  They have done a pretty good job of learning 100 years of industrial revolution lessons in a decade.

Foxconn is owned by the Taiwanese, managed by Hong Kong, employs labor from Cantonese Guangdong, and is regulated by Mandarin Beijing.   It's pretty remarkable.  The suicide rate is below that of similar scale operations (yes including the USA), when you have 1.1 million employees living in campuses the size of cities, you see rapes, robberies, and suicides at the same rate as you'd see in Detroit. 

Finally, the piece about Guiyu is completely inaccurate.   There are no Iphones in Guiyu.  Guiyu is almost all scrap generated in China.  Shenzhen, Guanzhou and Hong Kong have basically grown into one metropolis which has the population of JAPAN, and Guiyu is the scrapyard.

If you want to know what happens to Iphones which wind up in China, check out this blog.  Visit all 4 pages on the cell phone recycling in China.

I'm a socially conscious environmentalist.  In my opinion, we don't do ourselves any favors with racist depictions of the Geeks of Color.  It is a major embarrassment to the environmental community to have launched this "green scare" campaign against geeks and techs overseas.  I urge you to imagine how you would feel if you were Mowgli... when sex worker, coltan mining, child soldiering is 30% of your job market, and you learn to fix a cell phone, creating affordable connections for people in your emerging market,  or putting CRTs into internet cafes that become the center of Revolution 2.0, when you are recycling rather than mining, and green Americans portray you as some kind of a primitive, polluting, sorry, toxic victim.

Again, bravo on the first half of your piece.  But if I post it on the blog as is, I'm going to make some of the points I made above.  If you are interested in really conveying the truth, I'll spend as much time with you as you want.
If you want to see the piece we are both commenting on, find it via Elizabeth's blog... I don't really want to raise its pagerank if they are sending it out "looking for comments" but don't respond to the comments.  An MBA is supposed to be a masters degree program, and work is supposed to be subject to peer review, response and debate...

* The post above is actually from blogger Adam Minter, who shouted out some of my work over a year ago, and helped me meet some very thoughtful environmental historians.   I am passing the compliment forward to Kyle Wiens and Elizabeth Chamberlin, whose new blog is better written than mine, and has the potential to bring many, many more Geeks, Fixers and Tinkerers into the fray.  (Congrats as well to Adam, who used Las Vegas for its best intended purposes yesterday - not gambling or drinking or 1970s musical acts).

Adam, Amanda Smith-Teutsch, and Rachel Leven each gave a terrific presentation at's conference two days ago.  Adam's presentation showed pictures of his recent trip to the infamous "e-waste" hub in Guiyu, China, by the way.  One E-Steward company walked out of the presentation and "told on" Adam to the "top brass" at the Seattle NGO

I don't really agree with Rhee's attack on Apple's using Foxconn.  And I don't really agree with Adam's focus on the makers of the products he found in Guiyu, either.  But there's a big, big difference in how disagreement and debates are playing out between different e-scrap experts.   Adam listened to my comments.  Disagreement, criticism and dialogue are welcome between people who are trying to get to the truth.  Here is the comment I submitted to Adam's blog about the OEM material found a Guiyu:

RE:  Likely sources for HP etc. HDs in Guiyu

1)  Surplus auctions.   Computer retailer like CompUSA goes belly up, sells to surplus [vendor] 
2)  Theft.  **** ****  was convicted of stealing PCs and parts in an organized racket in  ***.  They literally stole pallets of computer parts.
3)  Water damage.  When a sprinkler goes off in a building, the corporate asset manager has to make a quick call whether to hope the hard drives etc. still work, or whether he will take the insurance money.  Since the price of tech has already fallen, he takes the insurance.   The stuff goes out in a way which you could write a book on... the insurance adjustor wants best scrap value 
4)  Someone scrapping out the surplus, somewhere, a low level employee, is assigned to clean out a warehouse or move a building.  He calls for lowest quote.  I get these calls all the time, I ask "what do you want done, DOS (destroy on site) or best value?"  Person thinks their job is to get he lowest price.  Which maybe it is, there is often plausible deniability involved.

I'd still say you need to follow the assets from this warehouse before anyone is impugned for anything.  Bars sell soft drinks, Guiyu does legitimate work with valuable stuff.  I don't sell there because of the risk you get caught... innocent... blindfolded drinking coca-cola in a [topless] bar during a raid.  Not something you want to have to explain to your wife, but you are actually innocent.

There are legitimate people trying to learn what is going on with the contract manufacturing, import, export, and other trade in high tech.  It's easy enough to be cynical, it's easy to "exoticize" places like China and Africa, it's easy to get all "ju ju" about things like brominated flame retardents in plastic, which we don't really understand.

I've been studying the environment since 1978, in high school debate classes.   My partner and I won Arkansas state championship in 1980, using a solar energy case, as I recall.  I learned however that Arkansas Nuclear One, the first nuke plant in Russelville, was built at the behest of the aluminum bauxite mining industry in Arkansas, selling half its electricity there.  I learned that recycling an aluminum can saves about 90% of the energy it takes to mine it from virgin material.  I learned that mines were leaving the USA to extract material from rain forests in less regulated countries.  I learned that the worst recycling was better than the best mining, and I chose this career to do some good.

Debate and dialectic isn't always easy, it isn't always popular, it isn't always fun.  But the anti-Apple graphics writers could at least have recognized the time I spent commenting on their piece.  And the e-Steward would have done well to stick around for the Q and A after Adam's description of his visit to Guiyu.  I hope he will share more of the photos of the chip harvesting, grading, and reuse, and the role of textile dying in the arsenic-river that runs through the city.

Adam, Elizabeth, Amanda Smith-Teutch, and I don't always agree with each other.   But through our blogs and articles, we are trying to make the study of environmental health more like the study of human health.  Medicine and health science may have begun with witch doctors, priests, and alchemy, but western medicine moved into the university system and has been subjected to centuries of scientific method, peer reviews, argument, and critical thought.   Human health is better because of it.   Recycling Stewards should welcome debate, not walk out when the truth doesn't fit the elixir they are selling.

Congrats again to Adam, Elizabeth, and Amanda.  Serious researchers of "e-waste" and escrap recycling policy have more and more information, and the dogmas and myths about electronics are finding it harder to thrive in a wiki-wiki-world.

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