FIREHOSE: New York Times Opinion Page (Leyla Acaroglu)

From today's NYT... An Opinion piece in support of the type of "export police" I've been writing about this month, in the Firehose Series.

Award winning designer, social scientist and sustainability expert Leyla Acaroglu "In far-flung, mostly impoverished places like Agbogbloshie, Ghana; Delhi, India; and Guiyu, China, children pile e-waste into giant mountains and burn it so they can extract the metals — copper wires, gold and silver threads — inside, which they sell to recycling merchants for only a few dollars. In India, young boys smash computer batteries with mallets to recover cadmium, toxic flecks of which cover their hands and feet as they work. Women spend their days bent over baths of hot lead, “cooking” circuit boards so they can remove slivers of gold inside. Greenpeace, the Basel Action Network and others have posted YouTube videos of young children inhaling the smoke that rises from burned phone casings as they identify and separate different kinds of plastics for recyclers. It is hard to imagine that good health is a by-product of their unregulated industry."

Smashing batteries to recover cadmium?  Descriptions of the same Youtube videos which have been discredited?  There is no new information in the column at all.  A lot of imagery of harsh conditions, poverty, victimization.  Who wrote the article?

Leyla Acaroglu is a sustainability strategist based in Melbourne, Australia.
Here are pictures of the people who buy and recycle cell phones.  Some of these pictures will look familiar.  Most will not.   I got these from a rare blog kept by David Kousemaker (dkousemaker), TechTravels Blog, a mostly photo blog (much less wordy) about used technology.  But unlike BAN and Greenpeace's photography, it's not political, and he isn't soliciting your "charitable donation".

I've put a handful of these photos in small scale below (fair use, and Kouserman actually allows non commercial commons use, see bottom).

Leyla, if you want to talk about sustainability in development, give me a ring.  I chose repair and refurbishing because the "Network of Tinkerers" is a model for development which offers an alternative from the curse of natural resources (and foreign aid, which appears to have the same effect as oil and diamonds, creating a Darwinistic government class that provides the greatest rewards to the sharpest elbows).  Tinkerers, networkers, technicians, fixers, repairers, geeks... those are the people who turn discarded tech into affordable access.  We called it "Yankee Ingenuity" in the Northeast.   There is no better way for a smart kid without connections to make $300 per day than by fixing and salvaging.

Read the other blogs here, Leyla, and you'll find that BAN and Greenpeace are filming the city dumps at major cities, and the used imports are mostly not the same stuff people throw away here after using it for 20 years.  Five reports show 9%, 10%, 13%, 15% of the imports are waste, which is actually less than new "affordable" product imported into places like Africa or sold in shops in China.  The free market is not as bad as you've described.  And no one can afford to pay for scrap to be shipped across the ocean just to dump it, something of value must be there for the ride (and it isn't batteries smashed for cadmium... who told you that?).

In May, 2011, I channeled a book from 1960.   No, not Vance Packard's "The Waste Makers", about planned obsolescence.   No, not Rachael Louise Carlson's "Silent Spring", about the invisible toxics from our heavy industry, and their heavy poisonous toll.

In "E-Waste Bloggers Play Atticus Finch", I referenced Harper Lee's dramatic novel, "To Kill a Mockingbird".   Ms. Lee, who has recently been in the news over copyright and author control, told the simple story of her native Monroeville, Alabama.
"You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."Harper LeeTo Kill a Mockingbird

The point here is that was 2011, and I've had many earnest discussions with Jim Puckett and the team at Basel Action Network.  They have quietly taken down the "80-90%" dumping statistic, but done so in a way which shows more concern about their defamation lawsuits than it does setting the record straight.  Meanwhile, Interpol arrests African geeks, I tell Jim, and he says "that's not me, I didn't do that".

If I were to use the term "accidental racist" about the woman Leyla from Melbourne Australia who really cares about sustainability, and obviously cares about the women in Shenzhen and the scrap boys in Abogbloshie, I'd probably alienate her (like I did David Fedele).  But she thinks she's helping Africans.  She's hurting them, she's causing them to be arrested.  
"As you grow older, you'll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don't you forget it - whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash."
When people like photographer Pieter Hugo describe repair, reuse, and imports as 'trash', they are firefighters.  They believe they are responding to an emergency.

Please, help me to help them redirect their firehoses.  It's not their fault.  David Fedele used statistics from Basel Action Network, and so did Ms. Leyla Acaroglu.  They are not racists, accidental or otherwise. But when you go to the Toyota dealership in Yonkers, and take pictures of junk trade ins, and then tell people that the junk trade ins were "externalized waste" from Tokyo, rather than trade ins for better product, trade ins that worked for years, you have some responsibility when the New York Times reports the story, and the Toyota dealership owner is arrested.  This is what is happening to reuse shops in Accra.  Greenpeace filmed the sea containers being unloaded.  They are not the same as the stuff at the Abogbloshie junk yard, any more than the junk cars came out of the Toyota transport ship.

It's a sin to kill a Mockingbird.

"The majority of refurbished products stem from imports via the ports of Lagos. The interim
results from project component 2, the Nigerian e-Waste Country Assessment, show that 70%
of all the imported used equipment is functional and is sold to consumers after testing. 70%
of the non-functional share can be repaired within the major markets and is also sold to
consumers. 9% of the total imports of used equipment is non-repairable and is directly
passed on to collectors and recyclers."
- Final report of the UNEP SBC, E-waste Africa Project,  Lagos & Freiburg, June 2011 

About TechTravelswith 3 commentsThis blog deals with some of unintended effects of the collision between culture and technology. These pages will be dedicated in particular to the repair, mod and hack ecosystems that have sprung up around consumer electronics in developing countries.
As an interaction designer and one of the principal founders of Blendid, David Kousemaker researches this topic from a designer/maker perspective.
Techtravels /at/ gmail /dot/ com for questions related to this blog (or if you have any spare frequent flyer miles you’d like to donate).
Creative Commons LicenseAll content of this side is published by David Kousemaker and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

No comments: