More Insider Dope on Electronics Export Transactions: Giovana Vitola

Leyla Acaroglu tweeted us about a documentary, aired in Australia, as proof that electronics exports are bad.  The reporter is a Brazilian woman, who is now in Singapore.   I have an address for her to visit.
Giovana Vitola's documentary "E-Waste Hell"  (shown on Australia's DateLine) follows the Basel Action Network recipe.

1.  Fly to a big city in an exotic location.
2.  Find bored kids burning TV devices (and refrigerators) at a city dump.  Take film.
3.  Interview an African (Mike Anane) who reads and believes BAN's fake 80-90% export statistics.
4.  Go to the sea container yard and take pictures of televisions being unloaded (from Australia)
5.  Interview the importer with a hidden camera.

Before you assume this is "same old same old", watch the documentary all the way through.  I noticed a few things worth talking about.

First, the standard freeze frame screen shots show, once again, that the devices filmed in the landfill shot look nothing like the flat CRT (2003ish TV year, which would have been made a the Samsung Corning flat CRT furnace in Klang, Malaysia, which made the compact CRTs until 2011).  She films one with broken plastic, but it's clearly shipping damage, and it's cosmetic, it doesn't mean it won't work.
No, I don't think so.  Talk to StEP much?

Second, the undercover film shows what Interpol recognized in its 2009 "organized crime" report.  The sea container is being received by the family business... the importer says his brother lives in Australia, and bought the televisions.  Another "Hurricane Benson" being associated with the dump, kilometers away.

Interpol:  Brothers + buying = organization = mafia

Third, Giovana Vitola interviews Lambert Faabulon, the Ghana EPA director, who I also interviewed in Washington DC.  He's a smart guy.  He told me that he wouldn't be able to buy a computer if the Watchdogs were in charge, and he said he saw the import trade as something to regulate but not to ban.  But Vitola asks him the "have you stopped beating your wife" question, why does Ghana allow this to happen, and Lambert asks her back why Australia allows it to happen.   I'd prefer it if he had asked her why she presumes Ghana businessmen are stupid, but maybe he did and it was edited out. 

Now Giovana might have taken the time to wonder why two African brothers would go to this extent to divert toxic electronic "e-waste" from Australia's own dumps.   Why these two Accra men took approximately 400 uniform televisions, paid $5 each to an Australian to sort out a certain type (not based on copper, these would have about the least scrap value you could find due to the large CRT ratio), then pay $5-8000 to put them in a container ship and bring them to a dump in Agbogbloshie for the scrap boys to burn...  It's the African Organized Crime Australian Landfill Diversion Benefit Charity drive...
"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 
combing the landfill for externalized waste
It's the same tired formula of going to city dumps and alleging the items in the dump are the same as the items being imported.   I found a pocket comb in the Middlebury dump, and the USA imports pocket combs from China, therefore China must be externalizing the disposal of its pocket combs to Middlebury...!

But Giovana Vitola represents an opportunity.  Brazil, Malaysia/Signapore, and Ghana have something in common... total distortion by the western press.  Giovana Vitola, if she's a good reporter, has an opportunity to do something very interesting and outside the tired formula for "e-waste-hell" recipes.  She can imagine a world without borders, and look at how people move towards wealth to get access to second hand equipment when there is no border, or ocean, to separate them.   When there is an ocean, a border, or immigration laws separating the "top shelf" from the "good enough" market, you have sea containers.  If you look closely at the goods, rather than at the skin of the people, Occam's Razor looks pretty good.   Poor people buy good enough stuff they can afford.   They don't pay to transport waste.  And the West is mistaking recoiling from poverty with compassion... they are not the same thing.

She's in an interesting place:  national lines drawn between the "city-state" of Singapore.  And she's from an interesting place - Brazil - which has one of the most astonishing mixes of poverty and high-tech growth in the past decade.

File:Montagem São Paulo.jpgBrazil "doesn't fit the Basel Convention OECD mold".  And Singapore, Korea, Hong Kong, etc. are nations whose crayon borders don't make sense in a Basel Convention context.

Brazil's living standards in the Amazon are a little different from the "favelas" (ghettos or slums) around Rio... which are different from the high tech city of Sao Paolo. Brazil is identified by the World Bank as the 8th wealthiest nation in the world, but the OECD test defines it as a "non-first world" aka third world nation.

If we carved up Brazil with European national border crayons, the way Malaysia and Singapore (where Vitola is now based) carved themselves into separate nations fifty years ago, Sao Paolo might look a lot like Singapore (still not OECD, but confusingly not so), and might be banned from selling, donating, trading used goods with its neighbors.  (Singapore is wealthier and more educated than the OECD average, but pehaps resists applying to the OECD because its neighbors it trades with won't be accepted).

Now that Vitola is in Singapore, she can take it from me, and look up an address.  I was in Singapore in December 2005, on my way back from the trip where WR3A was first incubated (with Lin Tien King of UC Berkeley and Craig Lorch of Total Reclaim and Frank Moy of Ceres Capital, in a Hong Kong office).

When I got off the plane in Singapore, I had a camera, and was looking for e-junk.

Found it.  Here's the address in Singapore, Ms. Vitola.

When I travelled to Asia, or Kyle Wiens or Giovani Vitola travels to Ghana, we are so indoctrinated by BAN's firehose that we see waste, and we immediately assume it's ours.  Take us to a dump outside a major city of ten million people, and if we see something familiar in the USA (like a fridge or a TV), we are ready to assume it was ours.  

Now what this photo of Mr. Tech Recycle reminds me is that the 9% working statistic from the UNEP and Basel Secretariat study in Lagos is probably not telling the whole story.  Probably the waste is closer to the 15% I originally estimated in the Monkeys Running the Environmental Zoo blog, at least in wealthy or upwardly mobile cities.

Because there is a firehose of used electronics supply, not just from OECD nations, but even more from the rapidly developing and emerging market cities like Shenzhen, Sao Paolo, Signapore, and Guadalajara (oops, the last is OECD, where's my crayon eraser?).

Why Whole Foods Composts More?
As the supply increases, a certain number of working Apples will spoil or not sell.  Tested working, whether from an E-Steward or a Singapore university dorm, doesn't necessarily mean it will sell.  Like bruised fruit, it may not.

Bruised fruit is less likely to sell in a wealthy Whole Foods supermarket than it is to sell in Yaounde, Cairo, or Lagos.  The hungrier the country, the more tolerance they have for "number eight" bananas.

"Imagine" There's No Countries, I wonder if you can...

Map of Brazilian states by GDP (per capita) in 2007. Numbers in Brazilian reais.
  + 25,000
  + 20,000
  + 15,000
  + 10,000
  + 5,000
  + 1,000

The wealthier Sao Paolo gets, the more bruised bananas and obsolete working Apples will go for scrap.  Waste is associated with wealth.  When it happens, should we ban Sao Paolo from selling to 

Mr. Teck Recycle didn't seem to notice me that morning, waiting for him to open his shop gate.  As he rolled open the shop door (like a USA garage), I was blown away by the solidly packed roomful of electronics.

I watched as Mr. Teck Recycle pulled out the tables and carts, to be sold on the sidewalk, and climbed a ladder into the crawl space above the tightly packed wall-to-wall used electronics, to find some stuff nested there which he wanted to display.

It's not for me to say whether Mr. Tech Recycle belongs on Hoarders, or whether he's part of the Tinkerer Blessing which makes nations like Singapore fix, repair, and reverse-engineer their way through gray markets and away from the resource curse.

But my assumption, when I took this picture, was that the gear in his shop came from America.  Because in 2005, Basel Action Network's firehose had soaked me with that expectation, that world view.   Today if I saw the same shop, I would assume that, like the shops in Peru, the stuff came from local wealthy, from stuff-upgrades.  And that if Mr. Tech is paying to import it, he's going to want as close to 100% sellable as he can get.

Some of the 91 percent working no doubt will wind up as junk.  In fact, all of it will pass through the system, as Leyla Acaroglu warned us.  Even donated food given to starving kids will eventually wind up as excrement, and excrement carries disease.  Maybe if we just deny the two African brothers the right to go and buy working product from Australia, when ,,,

2h even 9% is a staggering amount
And when
Details2h Even what is 'donated' eventually becomes a legacy that has to be dealt with. Read what the UN says 

I hope Giovana Vitola thinks about how Sao Paolo is portrayed in the Western press, thinks about how Brazilian fixers and technicians fare compared to sex workers, pirates, drug dealers, and other bad job choices.   Even scrapping in Brazil is a step ahead of worse places.  If the crayon ever comes out, and Sao Paolo's rich are separated from Algaos, Maranhao, and Piaui, whether a Green Fence should be erected to ban trade of used goods, or donation of bruised fruit.  Whether people who develop relationships between classes should be arrested, like Romeo and Juliet.  
Is stopping trade between economic classes so important that you are justified lying about them?  Was intermarriage between blacks and whites so risky that the risks should have been exaggerated to white children?  Environmentalists, look in the mirror.  We have met the enemy, and he is us.

Growth of a mega-city:  Sao Paolo Brazil.  How wealth decreases children per family, but grows cities as the poor flock to a chance for prosperity, bringing a good enough market for the wealthiest's used goods.  Whether people move closer to the wealthy's discards, or whether the wealthy's discards are transported closer to the poor, does it amount to wastecrime?

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