Defining E-Waste "Racism": Part 2 Fly-And-Lie

- Fly and Buy:   A trip to inspect used electronics, to be purchased for export.   The goal of the buyer is to make sure the load is at least 85% working and repairable after damage in shipping and elective upgrades.  See also "waste tourist".

- Fly and Lie:  A trip to inspect the exported electronics in the country which received them.   The goal is to  support a political agenda.  The "waste tourist" typically films only the 15% which was not reused, or films end-of-life product (generated on continent), emphasizing the most primitive aspects of the informal sector.

There is a double standard for "waste tourists"... people who fly over oceans to witness used electronics.  The waste tourists flying from North to South are called "watchdogs".  Those who fly from South to North are called "criminals".   People lose their life savings or go to jail based on how their trip is profiled.

When the WATCHDOG tourists fly to Africa, the working units aren't on the ground - they are in doctors offices, internet cafes, dormitories.  Admittedly, it's difficult to find the good-goods all in one place (though FIXERS manages to interview the repairpeople).  But the watchdog tourists take lots of film of the residue.  I felt like going ballistic when I previewed Fedele's E-Wasteland last week, as it used the 200,000 tons of import statistic from the 2011 UNEP studies, but seemed to ignore the rest of the UNEP study - the part that said 170,000 tons of it was reused and repaired, and most of the material at Agbogbloshie was generated by Africans after a decade of use.

We accept as normal in the West that 11% of brand new electronics sold are returned to the store as non-functional.  But when 15% of used goods brought to Africa fail, it means African businessmen are "criminals".   The math perplexes environmentalists, who can't seem to figure out that 85% of the imports are in doctors offices, internet cafes, and universities.  

To the African businesspeople, this is all about numbers.  Dollars, statistics, shipping costs, repair costs, distribution, and profit.  The higher the resale value, the greater the financial return.  These are not do-gooders, nor are they greedy, not any more than Bruce Springsteen is "greedy" for charging money for his concert in Dublin last week.  They have payrolls, they have family, they have risks, and no guarantee of rewards.


  • The African business people fly-and-buy to inspect product before they pay $10 each and another $10 to ship them.   Without them, the percentage of junk in loads could be much, much higher.

    This is not about some unscrupulous white "ewaste" recycler filling a boat and finding a beach in Africa to dump on.  Those "criminals" have never been found, because they don't exist.  

    Interpol labels the African Fly-and-Buy  "Waste Tourists" (Daily Telegraph, 2009) "criminals".  Journalists and watchdogs, like Greenpeace, Basel Action Network, NRDC, CBS 60 Minutes, and Europol  also fly to see the goods, after they are received.  These are also "white waste tourists".  They make their livings denigrating the African businessman's trade.  But unlike the African "waste tourist", all they have invested is their plane ticket - or in the case of Greenpeace a sabotaged (to be unrepairable) television and a GPS tracking device (which they got back).

    "Man held after tonnes of illegal e-waste are exported to Africa'Scavenger children' at risk from toxic fumes produced by broken equipment"
    The Independent headline, November 2009 

    The Greenpeace Waste Tourists are using their own experience to purposefully gain and leverage the ignorant stereotypes held by their audience, for financial donation.  With Waste Tourist journalists like Scott Pelley, the sleight of hand is for emotional punch (film).  To the Africans involved, both are at best a "parasite of the poor" (another term I got from an African, via his blog).  It is putting people in jail, and it is leading artists like David Fedele to E-waste-Our-Time-Land thinking that what they are showing on film is something other than the Accra city dump.  A monitor weighs about 27 pounds... does the film really show 16 million computer monitors per year getting burned?  Does Agbogbloshie have anywhere CLOSE to the capacity to burn material?  READ THE UNEP STUDY.   Reuse and repair employ 30,000 Ghanains and contributes $105M to the Ghana economy.

    "Fly and Lie".  The activist, liberal, or journalist is making their trip appear more exotic.  CBS carefully avoids filming the monorails and skyscrapers on their way to Guiyu, and passes up a direct invitation to visit the factory which buys back the CRT monitors they showed in Hong Kong.  They go to Guiyu, where they find not a single solitary CRT monitor out of the millions and millions they describe, out of the sea container from Colorado, off of the Hong Kong shipping yard.   Scott Pelley ludicrously finds a piece of plastic off of a monitor in Guiyu to support his "we followed the trail".  Greenpeace sabotages a TV to make it look repairable, and then films nice TVs being unloaded, while voicing over that they are obsolete and broken and mostly bad.  Unbelievable.  They need to be sued, for the good of Greenpeace (I'd like to sue them  for $1 just to make them accountable for their impact on the Africans they profile).

    The fact is that primitive spots in Guiyu are sexier, more exotic, than the contract manufacturing, warranty-return, SKD operations which were at the end of CBS Wasteland's "trail".  They are even more sexy than the main business in Guiyu itself - harvesting and classifying integrated circuits and chips for resale and reuse.
    "The brown current ran swiftly out of the heart of darkness, bearing us down towards the sea with twice the speed of our upward progress..." - Joseph Conrad HOD
    The African Waste Tourist flies to Europe or the USA to make sure that only the best, and only the best 20% -30% of used electronics make it onto his boat.  He never buys 1970s televisions, Pentium 1 computers,  busted inkjet printers or old VCRs.  There is a little residual money in scrap metal, but not enough to be worth the $10 he pays for the item and the $10 to ship it.   He flies to make sure that what he's importing is 85% good.  Fly and Buy:  That's the only way he makes money.

    File:CongoLualaba watershed plain political.png
    I've spent time in the Congo watershed, too
    The NGO, do-gooder, investigative journalist Waste Tourist always seems to make sure we see the remaining 15%, the ones the African businessman couldn't fix, the ones which arrive damaged.  They photograph them at the lousy, unlined landfills, filled with scrap scavengers, typical of all slums in every city of the Developing World.  They take photos, and then they can say, as Allen from NRDC says, "I have been there!"  They use the anecdote of the 15% to describe a world where African businesspeople are marginalized as participants, described as criminals or impoverished victims, where the "exporters" are greedy white recyclers who export the bad to avoid the cost of disposal (even though they are unable to export 70% and have to recycle anyway, or pay top dollar for off lease corporate equipment that will be 80% good).

    The NGO liberal, with photo of burning product in hand, announces that 80% of USA and EU material which is exported gets burned in these pits, and sells "Stewardship Insurance" to those who shred the material and don't sell to Africans.  Or they say 80% of the used electronics in the USA and EU are exported to places like this (these similar-looking stats are mathematically exclusive of each other and prove, prima facia, a priori, that the NGO has their facts wrong).

    People react to the photos of poor people burning stuff, feel guilty for turning their PC in for recycling, and donate money to the NGO, or the journalist sells more "shock" articles, or (like CBS 60 Minutes) earns a Pelley award.

    Fly and Lie.

    I met dozens of waste tourist businesspeople from the developing world, and they are doing something inately sustainable - creating "good enough" products out of wealthy nations discards - and wiring their continents for democracy and revolution and film and music, and giving billions of people a voice...  When Interpol calls them "organized" and (therefore) "organized crime", and their life savings are endangered and then the UNEP and Kahhat/Williams document 85-87% reuse, the NGOs silence is deafening.

    OK, I've also seen Africans burning the hair off of monkeys on a tire.  I've seen pictures of refrigeraters converted to barbeque pits with dogs on the spit.  If I splayed the photos across my website, I'd look more daring, more adventurous.  But most of my time is spent with Africans pricing the speed of mghz and negotiating the price of RAM and hard drives.  It's business, and it's boring, but it's the truth.

    All I want is a boring statistic, after saying 200k tons of used electronics are imported to Ghana, also say
     "and 85% of these are fixed and reused.  This film is not about those, it's about the 15%, and the others generated by African Consumers after years of reuse". 
    The inconvenient truthful portrayal of the Africans who fly and buy falls flat.  It's boring and obvious.  Nothing sexy, no "gotcha".  Like CBS Scott Pelley and producer Solly Granatstein, the white Waste Tourists would rather be saying something shocking, surprising and important.  The truth only distracts from the emotion they are going for.

    This is a case of racial profiling.  And until the UNEP 200,000 tonnes study was released, it was my word against theirs.  To see part of the UNEP statistics showing up in the same old garbage about African waste tourist criminals is outrageous.

    No comments: