ARSTechnica Reprints Discredited EWaste Propaganda?

ARSTechnica is a good blog for Geeks.  It was therefore a shock to see them feature a rehashed "E-Waste Export" diatribe, written by James Holloway of the Open University.

In his article, Toxic trade: why junk electronics should be big business, Holloway correctly identifies the importance of the rare earth metals, including gold, which are lost when used electronics are disposed of in the landfill.  Back in the 1990s, when I was Recycling Director for the Massachusetts DEP, I made much the same case.   The pollution, toxics, energy, and rain forest loss from mining reddish metals, from places like the OK Tedi Copper Mine on the isle of Papua New Guinea, represent a much deeper environmental priority than recycling green wine bottles and old packaging.

He quotes our friends at StEP in Europe (where I'm now typing) about the enormous waste represented by lost circuit boards, with the gold (and tantalum, and silver, and copper... I would add) if a computer is tossed into a burning pile of waste.
At current rates of production, $16 billion (or 320 tons) in gold and $5 billion (7500 tons) in silver are put into media tablets, smartphones, computers, and other devices annually. With growth in demand for smartphones and media tablets showing little sign of diminishing in the next few years, the flow of gold and silver from deposit to waste facilities is only likely to accelerate.
So far, a good chestnut on the importance of recycling and preserving rare earth metals.  But Mr. Halloway then twists the very study he highlights - a study I linked to here when WR3A / Fair Trade Recycling representatives were with StEP at the Pan-African Conference on E-Waste in Nairobi in March.

STEP and UNEP and WR3A all presented papers concluding that hand-disassembly was good.  Amazingly, most of the people at the conference in Africa agreed that geeks and recyclers prefer loads of used electronics from rich people to loads of used electronics collected from poor people.

Photo: Living dangerously in Middlebury VermontThe jobs represented by labor in Africa and China can be good jobs.  And hand-disassembly is a good process, according to the actual articles Mr. Halloway pretends to have read.  Rare earth metals (e.g. hard drive magnets) which are lost in European and USA shredders can find new lives in new hard drives when the drive is dismantled.  And the UNEP study showed that the reuse and repair jobs from used electronics imports into countries like Ghana represent 100-fold more jobs and employment than the "scrap boys" who dismantle used computers at Agbogloshie or Lagos dumps.

The negatives about waste shown by anti-export groups at those dumps, in study after study, is found to primarily originate from users in Africa... just as the "e-waste" in China mostly comes from Chinese consumers.   85% of the imported electronics, UNEP found, were reused and repaired in Ghana and Nigeria.  This put the 2009 "study" (rather an opinion piece) by Interpol in a new light.  The Interpol report, which Halloway cites, assumed that 80-90% of the used electronics purchased by Africans were burned in primitive conditions (accepting the Basel Action Network propaganda), and that primitive Africans stupidly burn CRT monitors rather than test them for reuse for, say, internet revolutions in African countries like Libya, Tunisia and Egypt.  

Halloway does the same thing as the Interpol author - using passive voice and a completely eroneous and discredited statistic - to build his case around.
" has been widely reported that 90 percent of the USA's e-waste ends up in either China or Nigeria—a figure that appears to originate from an estimate made by Jim Puckett, Director of the Basel Action Network. "
The Interpol report found that Africans were the ones stationed in Europe, buying the used electronics.  And allow me to applaud with a hearty "DUH!"  Geeks of Color like Wahab in Ghana, Hamdy in Egypt, Souleymane in Senegal, and Miguel in Angola can't afford to pay thousands of dollars in shipping and customs duties to import computers for burning.  They either "fly and buy" (inspecting and hand-picking goods prior to export) or rely on Africans studying abroad to test the goods before they are shipped.  The Interpol report stunningly labelled these Africans as "organized crime".  The report stalled at Interpol and was not translated, it's now considered a TinTin era "white man's burden" paper, completely discredited by UNEP and other people who sat down and talked to the "geeks of color"... people Halloway didn't have time to meet before writing his rehash of covertly racist propaganda on ARsTechnica.

Halloway skips over the point of the StEP Study, that hand disassembly is good but has diminishing returns after reuse and metals are separated.  Printed circuit boards need to go back to places like Daiwa in Japan or Umicore in Belgium for the gold and palladium to be properly refined.  And that's what is happening - UNEP found no instances of "aqua regia", the acid bath used a decade ago to loosen gold in Guiyu.  And there's not much aqua regia going on in Guiyu, either.   The re-export of printed circuit boards for refining is commonplace now in China, and a South African company is selling high-tech micro-refining technology to make it safer and more accessible in rural areas.

Halloway appears not to have read any of the stories he cites, but instead annotates them and jumps back in time to the conclusion promoted by Basel Action Network 11 years ago - a boycott of the geeks of color.  He laments that HR2284 has stalled.  That is a bill which would ban fair trade with geeks like Hamdy, Souleymane, Wahab, and Miguel - and SIX BILLION other people in the emerging markets (you know, the same factories where your laptop was manufactured, and where it would be repaired under warranty).

Fair Trade Recycling is an idea where the trade continues, but quality is improved.  Quality improves itself, the geeks in Africa remind us, if they are allowed to buy from multiple sellers in a buyers market.  But when boycotts and bans scare suppliers away, the quality goes down.  Fair Trade Recycling offers the geeks discounts on the nice rich people stuff they want to import, resell, and own, in return for hand dismantling of the products at end of life.  In Malaysia, our fair trade partner saves the magnets from hard drives for resale to contract manufacturers for Seagate and Western Digital... and we pay them for glass-to-glass recycling at the CRT furnace run by Samsung in Klang, Malaysia.  They take back used CRTs from within Malaysia whenever they sell working ones.  And that offers a solution which Halloway's prescription - HR2284 - will criminalize.

James Halloway looks like a nice guy, and he has his finger pensively posed next to his temple, a sure sign of intelligence.  So why did he rehash an old idea and cherry-pick (or crap-pick) details from a hopeful study by StEP which closed the ground between the organizations anti-export ideas of a decade ago?  One of the problems in "Open University" and other long-distance learning centers is that you are not in a classroom exposed to people of a different point of view.  Halloway probably uses Jim Puckett as a source, and never goes near Motherboard's article from a year earlier, "Why We Should Export Our Electronic "waste" To China and Africa".  Traditional universities welcome and cultivate opposing points of view, using Socratic method to tease out the truth.   ARSTEchnica should give that a try.

The disposal of used electronics is a big problem where they are being generated and consumed.  That means, mostly, in emerging markets in Asia, Latin America, and Africa.  Hand-disassembly, the StEP report says, is an excellent opportunity to recover the metals which Halloway correctly says should not be wasted.   Perpetuating discredited myths about the origins of recycling is a step backwards from the science and research which Fair Trade Recycling is based on.

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