4 Key E-Waste Tactics: Inference, Allegation, Indictment, Guilt?

Why should exports of used electronics be outlawed?  Let's look at the case Basel Action Network makes in its campaign to stop the used electronics trade.

The "watchdog" campaign to end USA's used electronics exports relies on inferences, allegations, indictments, and even proven guilt.  Which is which, and how concerned should environmentalists be?

1) Inference:  Poor children are found amid piles of e-scrap, and pollution is found amid piles of e-scrap.  The inference is that the e-scrap was imported, and that the pollution, the poverty, and associated risk to children will be reduced through prohibition.

- First, the water pollution in Guiyu comes largely from the textile mills in the area.  But some of the burning of copper and boards is certainly going to add to the pollution in the short term.  Did the material come directly off of a boat laden with imports?

Or was it material imported years ago?  Or was it recently imported, but a percentage of residue (e.g. 15%) of otherwise clean scrap or reuse product?  Or.. just perhaps.. does the fact China generates more "e-waste" than the USA have something to do with it?

And are the children helped more by prohibition or by investing in safer processes?  Is the problem manual disassembly, or fire?  I say fire is the problem and e-scrap can be recycled without fire, just as cotton can be picked without slaves.

BAN is good, really good, at inference.

2)  Allegation:  BAN alleges that most of the used electronics in the USA are exported, (we presume they to mean intact, as-is, as opposed to the clean steel produced by E-Steward shredders).  They allege that most of the scrap filmed at dumps in China came from the USA.   "By far" is the quote Jim Puckett uses to describe... well, both statistics.  BAN further alleges that of 400 sea containers brought into places like Lagos, purchased by people like Joseph Benson of Nigeria, that most of the product is intended for recycling or disposal and not reuse.   Based on BAN's allegations about the quantities involved, people like Brian Brundage are excluded from E-Stewards, and people like Joseph Benson are arrested, and people like Gordon Chiu lose over $100K in refurbished goods orders (seized at customs in Indonesia).

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- Interpol, the international police agency based in Lyons, France, wrote a paper in 2009 tracing the trade in exports to Africa to African buyers who purchase and consolidate used electronics in Europe.  Proving that the trade (payment for goods) came from Africa, Interpol then stated that "organized crime" was behind the trade.  This is a logical fallacy, as Interpol assumed BAN's allegations of the percentage of waste in the containers was valid.  BAN's statistics were not valid.  BAN has publicly changed them, and has never given a source, using "weasel words" like "is estimated", or citing news sources which took their own estimates and put them in print.   What of these allegations?

The UN found that most of the used electronics disposed of in the developing world were used in the developing world and discarded there.  A UNEP investigation and sampling of 179 sea containers in Lagos found 85% of the used electronics were reused, and that over 95% of the economy in the trade was from repair, reuse, and added value - not from scrap.  They found that, like China, Africans have had TV and computers for decades and that most of the material at the dump was not recently imported.  BAN simply needs to publicly retract the allegation.  The allegation was without factual basis to begin with, and now that BAN has acknowledged the studies to be valid, BAN needs to apologize.

3) Indictment:   BAN likes to remind people that used goods imports into China are illegal under Chinese law, and that Hong Kong uses the treaty giving it sovereignty over its own trade ports to skirt the laws of the Chinese Communist Party.  This is true.  People in Hong Kong subvert regulations written in Beijing, and people are indicted as "criminals" for importing certain goods.  Even other local and regional provinces (e.g. Yunnan) set up their own rules which may contradict rulings from Beijing. It is a grey market.  China can bring a case against imports into Hong Kong inside the HK courts.

- But both R2 and E-Steward standards require legal shipments.   What is indictable in China?

I'm attending a presentation by the Tibetan Buddhist, the 14th Dalai Lama, next week.  This, too, would be illegal in China.   It's also illegal in China to read this blog now, as I have distributed information about an illegal meeting with the Dalai Lama.  Also illegal in China, sale of a 5 day old working Pentium 4 dual core refurbished laptop.   Now I don't do export those things to China, but I hesitate to call anyone a "criminal" who is indicted as one by the Chinese Communist Party.  I'm not a China basher, I believe in free and fair trade with China.  But China needs to obey the WTO and not use social and environmental laws as non-tariff barriers if they are to have free trade access with the West.  The environmentalists do not have a dog in this fight.

BAN also makes a case that the USA violates international law (Basel Convention).  When asked about the text of the Basel Convention in Annex IX B1110, which does not support BAN, BAN references a future amendment to the Basel Convention and a report from a non-elected committee meeting.  If a non-elected committee can change USA Commerce Laws, maybe we are right not to ratify the Basel Convention after all,  because what we VOTE to ratify says this is legal, not illegal!

4) Guilt:  Who is guilty?   People peddling in ignorance.  BAN infers causal relationships between recycling and poverty which do not exist.  Yes, poor people mend their clothes, and if you take a picture of an old Chinese woman mending a button while squatting on the ground, you will win over a few stupid people to boycott the export of used clothing.   Many nations do ban imports of used clothing, but it's in order to protect their domestic textile industries - the ones which polluted the river in Guiyu, e.g.   Mending clothing creates jobs and is sustainable, but it's a crime to export used Levis to China.

Why am I harping on this?

Because the USA media and journalists are not covering the case of the accused.

Despite photographic evidence of E-Waste Innocence, taken from BAN.org and Greenpeace's own films, the USA press has not corrected the story, nor has anyone gone after CBS 60 Minutes for their ill-gotten Polk award.  People defer to Oprah, they defer to Terry Gross, they defer to good people who I defer to as well if I'm ignorant on a subject.

But the case of inference, allegation, indictment and guilt in this "e-waste" campaign all boil down to discredited economic theories of poverty (work done by poor people explains the poverty... that's proven stupid) combined with racial profiling and poster-child campaigns.

I'm going to die sooner or later.  I'd like it if some other journalist takes up the issue before then.  Because this is a campaign against recycling which is silent about mining and refining -the actual sources of pollution in the developing world, and the actual source of rich guilt over unsustainable consumption.  This campaign of denigrating used textiles and used computer displays is being propped up by planned obsolescence and dictatorships.

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