Environmental Malpractice, Part I: Due Disclosures

[Note:  Last week I had initial meetings at the IQPC "E-Waste Summit" at Caesar's Palace with Jim Puckett and Mike Enberg of BAN.  We had a chance to try to clear the air a bit following the infamous Donald Summers blistering of "fair trade recycling" at Chicago Patch, Jim's equivocation of fair trade recycling and "poisoning people" in E-Scrap News, the effect of fake math on real people in the developing world, and the collapse of the California Compromise.    They in turn shared their genuine hurt over insinuations of racial profiling and accusations of financial motives, via my blog.   I need to treat that carefully, but have already cut this post into 3 parts after writing on the redeye from Phoenix.  It is hard to find the time to write this as carefully as it demands, but also vital to strike while the iron is hot... ]

First things first: The study of holistic environmental health parallels the evolution of the human health sciences.   Species diversity, carbon, toxics, ecosystems, sustainable consumption, over-population, etc. connect in ways we must study in order to understand them.  Western medicine has made monumental strides, but on the way to discovering a cure for AIDS and smallpox, we went through waste-centric periods of giving tapeworms for weight control, and liquid mercury as a laxative.

Western medicine grew up by making mistakes, discovering them, and admitting to them.  It has developed certain principles, like primum non nocere "first, do no harm".   But when well-meaning doctors accidentally do harm their patients, we don't call accuse them of "racism" or "poisoning people".  We have another more professional term.
"In lawmalpractice is a type of negligence in which the professional under a duty to act fails to follow generally accepted professional standards, and that breach of duty is the proximate cause of injury to a plaintiff who suffers harm. It is committed by a professional or her/his subordinates or agents on behalf of a client or patient that causes damages to the client or patient."
-wikipedia 2012.11.16

Basel Action Network and Fair Trade Recycling offer different remedies to imbalances in the trade of used electronics.   Junk exports, or "toxics along for the ride", can happen either because a shortage is created (California SB20) or because of over-supply, or changes in prices of new product.  It is not the intention of the "E-Steward" to create a shortage, nor the intention of ISRI's overseas clients to pay for shipping of useless material.  We both agree that improvements can be made which will help the people in the developing world, emerging world, or non-OECD.

It's not a major concession on my part to swap the word "malpractice" for "accidental racism".  E-Stewards / BAN really want to be treated deferentially, as environmentalists, as watchdogs, as protectors of the poor, not "parasites of the poor".   But here is why I think it's a step forward:  Malpractice insurance is something well-intentioned health professionals need in case of an accident.

One of the first tests in court to differentiate accidental malpractice (unintentional harm) from criminal malpractice is how quickly the do-gooder responds to the mistake.   If a doctor takes a follow up X-Ray and sees she left a surgical tool in your belly and has to re-open the abdomen to fetch it, it's a lot worse if she pretends not to see it or refuses to review the x-ray.

Facts is facts.   It is time for BAN to give Due Disclosure about their "export statistics".

BAN may be excused for using the statistics "80%" a few years ago, and could say there wasn't good information.  They may have missed their own 2006 researcher's paper from Kenya, estimating 90% reuse.  They may have been skeptical of the paper by Williams and Kahhat, showing 87% reuse in Peru imports.  They may not accept my experience in estimating acceptable fallout when the cost of shipping to African ports is over $7000 - In Monkeys Running Environmental Zoo article, we calculated 85% reuse based on prices paid for product and shipping.  And they have loudly objected to the reports by ISRI and IDC that over 80% of used electronics are treated in the USA prior to export.

But a year ago, in 2011, the United Nations Environmental Program and the Basel Secretariat issued studies from in depth research (279 sea containers, following exports from Nigerian Joseph Benson from London to Lagos), and found - again - that 70% of the imports were fully functional, and half of the rest (15%) were repaired and reused.   That makes FIVE reports which estimate that between 80-90% of the used electronics purchased by Africans were legitimate.

And yet the news article from 2009, showing the arrest of Nigerian Joseph Benson in England, and pictures of black men unloading his containers, and text from the discredited report by Interpol's Emile Lindemulder, were still the focus of Puckett's presentation on Thursday.  Interpol's report said that "given" the exports to Africa were 80% toxic junk (citing BAN), that the African "waste tourists" and buyers (like Benson) were "organized" and therefore "organized crime".

Fair Trade Recycling had to stand up and call Interpol and demand French translation of the report, and to ask that Benson be exonerated publicly.  This is not about some dude at Executive Recycling, or Intercon Solutions in Chicago.   This is about false information which has resulted in the racial profiling of reuse businesses.  Invoking the unfair assumptions made about Asian, Latino, and African buyers was about helping the accused.  I don't like it any more than I like to induce vomiting following an overdose, but the emerging markets have definitely overdosed on BAN's messages about "e-waste exports" and "exporting harm".

I'm willing to drop the past if BAN is willing to publicly cite the 5 studies all estimating 85% reuse, and make the case that the 15% "toxics along for the ride" (an expression from my 2002 article in Recycling Today, "Setting a Higher Standard", which BAN borrowed in friendlier times).

It's inconvenient to have to remove UK Guardian articles, quotes from Interpol, and statistics given by a single person you met in Africa.  But if I'm to cooperate with BAN and E-Stewards, they need to stop insulting people like Willie Cade and myself who sincerely have the best interest of our friends in emerging markets in our hearts.   I arrived where I am via an anti-mining protest in high school, a degree in international relations in college, a stint in Peace Corps in Africa, a semester at the UN, and study of the "resource curse" and "tinkerer blessing".

BAN's compassion is real.  BAN does care about the children they use in their photos.  They are not racists.  But the exaggeration of the problem has turned into a marketing tool by "big shred", and legislation proposed in Congress, which shows a young black man carrying a 1970s TV casing at a landfill, and using it to impugn the motives and practices of fair trade recycling.  If the medicine you prescribe - restrictions on trade - is being misapplied or misused to harm the Geeks of Color - Benson, Chiu, Moussa, Las Chicas and others - BAN desperately needs to apply a warning label.  Their E-Stewards Campaign is directed at the poorest of the world's non-OECD, and is not intended for use to impugn the dignity of technicians, ODMs, manufacturing takeback, and legitimate repairpeople.

I will challenge BAN to a public debate at a major university, any place, any time.  Peer review of proposed treatments and cures is ethical and necessary to prevent environmental injustice, racial profiling ("waste tourists"), and malpractice.

End of Part I.  In Part II, I'll try to extricate the case of accidental racism from impugning the good intentions of the anti-export watchdogs in Seattle and California.

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