How China Kicked Our Asses in Africa

Photo and post inspired from London School of Economics Africa Blog, 
Africa and China: How it all began

What I'm doing with Fair Trade Recycling is perfect.  It's appropriate technology, it gives Africans affordable internet, and the repair jobs which pay too little to do in the USA create 10 times the per hour wages for Africa.  It's the "tinkerer blessing", the opposite of the Resource Curse.

Thanks for the Business, Uncle Sam
It seeds and creates and pays for an appropriate technology recycling system.  While only 15% of imports of used equipment are bad (Wal-Mart returns are 11%), paying for the proper disassembly and recycling of incidental breakage, elective upgraded parts, etc. creates a recycling infrastructure.

In Retroworks de Mexico, that creates a "computers for clunkers" trade in program where the ones they refurbish for resale can be exchanged for the domestic-generated e-waste.  That's the system already in Africa, people trade in the ten year old ones for more recently imported and upgraded, which is the link between the importers and Agbogbloshie.  BAN and Greenpeace and Interpol would have known this if they'd given Souleymane, Wahab, Hamdy, Somda or Miguel the courtesy of a discussion rather than just profile them as "waste tourists".

USA would be smart to be selling the repair and working display devices etc. to Africa.  We create more income and more jobs through reuse.  We cannot afford to have an idiotic 48 cent per pound California-destroy-all SB20 system.

USA has former Peace Corps volunteers like me, African immigrants like Wahab and Souleymane, and a history as a melting pot which our biggest competitors - China, Japan and South Korea - didn't have.

10 Most Toxic African E-Waste Recycling Processes

UNEP Study:  The Dangerous 15%

"Risks and Opportunities of E-Waste"
("BAN-shes, cullet, aqua-regia... Oh My.")

Again, it's too bad that UNEP gave "Opportunity" second billing.  I suspect it keeps peace with the OEMs they are fawning over, papers over the embarrassing assumptions about "waste tourists" and "African criminals", and slowly re-acclimates us to the fact the glass is about 85% full.

There is indeed risk.  Not as much as mining, or dry cleaning, but the Center for Disease Control and OSHA do have rules.  Africa needs to gather the CDC and OSHA rules, as Retroworks de Mexico has done.  We all need to prioritize risks and benefits, and do so without hysterics.  Fair Trade Recycling doesn't want to be apologist for toxics.

So let's talk about the toxic risks.  What are the most dangerous recycling processes for e-waste in Africa, India, etc?  How do these compare with, say, dry cleaning, painting, or automobile repair?

At the Pan-African Congress WR3A is attending this month in Nairobi, the deal on the table is the same as Product Stewardship in California... stop import/exports in return for OEM money to recycle.

Africans would stop importing newer material, enforce "e-waste" planned obsolescence laws, and in return Europe will pay them top dollar for a cocktail recipe of sea container scrap... printed circuit boards, power supply, copper, and other scrap.   Something Europe would have paid for anyway, without any such anti-reuse compromise.

Let's look at the 9 or 10 very worst e-waste processes in Africa, and whether Africans can fix those themselves, on their own terms, before taking OEM devil deals.  Mining the metals like lead and coltan for the OEMs produces most of the harm in Africa.

Top 10 E-Waste Recycling Toxic Concerns for Africa:

ODM - Opportunity is in the Wind

First, here is a May 2010 film from Financial Times, which was done during the wave of 10 suicides at Foxconn (Han Hoi) in Shenzhen (click "MORE")

Playing Nice With "eWaste" Geeks

I sort of get wound up sometimes.  I really believe in Fair Trade Recycling, and it's really sad that our biggest opponents are "environmentalists".  This post is dedicated as a reminder of some of the people I've been very, very proud to have met in developing nations.  See my friends pictures, below the "more" fold.

Simon Lin, Wistron chairman
Photo Simon Lin, Wistron chairman
Photo credit: Digitimes file photo
What is a shame is that I have no slides of, or friends in, Chengdu, China.  It's just a little bit smaller than Cairo, with 14 million residents.  It's in Western China, which has lagged in development.

How is China trying to develop and advance this part of their country?  By partnering with Wistron, (the contract assembly company that owns ACER, number 2 in world PC sales).   The mainland Chinese government has turned once again to a Taiwanese billionaire with "tinkerer" roots.   Wistron began as a maker of plastic cases for computer monitors, and continues to supply SKD factories.  I'm sure there will be Western pessimism about Wistron and environmental stewardship, as there is with Foxconn and other Taiwanese-owned manufacturers.  But do they know that Wistron is also opening a major plastic recycling plant in Texas?  In fact, Wistron funds my company to collect computers from schools, free of charge, in New England.

I have met several people in the refurbishment business who bragged of knowing Simon Lin (one SKD factory owner was a nephew named after him).  Will I live to see one of my friends below, from Africa, Latin America, or South Asia, use the same refurbishing springboard?  No more far fetched than the idea of China's Shenzhen beehive would have been (to most) two decades ago.  And Taiwanese and Chinese investors are buzzing around Africa and South America like bees on daffodils.

What dreams can we have for the developing world?  I learned a new vocabulary word, ODM (original design manufacturer)...

These are great stories, about sustainable reuse, intelligent refurbishing, and geek and tinkerer economies, and recycling takeback, worldwide.  When I heard Allen Hershkowitz of NRDC, speaking on the Diane Rehm Show, say "I have been there, I have seen it" to describe "#ewaste exports" to 83% of the world, I shook my head.

I think I've been to a lot of different places.  Yet I could never imagine myself saying "I have been there" to describe the rest of the darn world.   I've never been to Chengdu, I've never even been to India or Pakistan.  But here are some places I have been to, and some people who have electronics knowledge have in common, with each other, with Wistron, and with FreeGeeks and Refurbishers here in the USA.

BAN NGO Threats Lawsuit vs. Vermont #ewaste Blogger

BAN:  Worst NGO in the world?
"Robin— this conversation is about one thing: removing the false and misleading information from your website.   It is my hope that you will agree to remove this libel and not attempt to “trade” its removal for any other action.

This is our final request.  Should you fail to remove this libelous information about our fees from your website immediately, the next communication you will receive on the subject will be from our attorneys. 

Please advise."

Ok, here's my advice.

BAN objected to my calculation of their fees for licensing "E-Stewards" Recycling.  My number was within 1%, not a glaring error like "80% bad exports" when the fact is "85% good exports".  This time, happily, BAN provided the real numbers, so I was happy to remove what I'd been told second-hand.

It's good to see BAN become such a stickler for correct percentages.  Boycott E-Stewards?  As I said yesterday, I wouldn't go that far... they are all good companies, even if the alternatives are not anywhere as bad as they say.  But here is my case for why Basel Action Network needs people like me to do them favors like this... Tough love from a fellow environmentalist.

First, let's be clear.  You wouldn't be suing me for saying that overseas refurbishing factories were ruined without evidence, or that the African dumps were not filled with imported material, or that you have a monetary incentive to recommend one company over a company that has the exact same (R2) system and markets. You won't sue me for mis-representing Basel Annex IX.  Of course not, 90% (a statistic I just made up) of what I write is true, which is a pretty decent defense.

You are threatening to sue me based on a decimal point, a percentage, somewhere between 0% and 2%.  You, who said that dirty Africans primitively burn 80% of the computers they buy, that they are waste tourists and criminals... You want to sue me over, plus or minus, a decimal point.  Hmmm. FY SUE ME?  No.  You should hire me.

Boycott E-Stewards Recyclers?

Here's an excerpt from the latest press release from Basel Action Network, which has announced that R2 (Responsible Recycler Certification) is accepted by E-Stewards, but not sufficient:
"BAN created the e-Stewards Standard after the R2 Standard failed to prohibit exports of hazardous electronic waste to developing countries"
Jim Puckett, BAN, sells E-Steward Certification, 
receives % of gross from E-Steward Companies

"After the R2 Standard FAILED"?  E-Stewards rolled out before R2 ever went to press.  R2 has not even been accused of anything specific except not being the choice of BAN, a choice BAN made before R2 went to print.   Now even "not being the choice of BAN" is in question, as BAN's announcement was that it was adapting R2 standards...

In any case, the studies have been released... even non-certified exports to Africa were 85% reused.  Just how bad could R2 certification be?

For 10 years, the non-profit NGO BAN said that 80% of the goods exported to Africa were e-waste burned in terrible conditions... the conditions prior to either R2 or E-Stewards Standards.  They showed us pictures of the kids in the dump, working on "allegedly" imported computer junk.  They said that the contract refurbishing (white box re-manufacturing) factories were "poisoning people" and "illegal"...

Now, seems it ain't so.