Bullyboy 1: Toxics, Consumption, and Racism

There were 3 seminal works, all published in 1960, which have guided me.

  • Silent Spring, Rachael Carlson.
  • The Waste Makers, Vance Packard
  • To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee

Toxics, Consumption, and Racism.   The Story of Stuff, or E-Waste Exports, is “...tria juncta in uno...”

Used electronics recycling policy, as a lens, reveals how liberal occidental policy responds to risks.  The risk of a "toxic", the risk of product obsolescence, and the risk racism.   Particularly of black men taking white women.  Oh, you didn't know white liberals had fears about the third?  How subliminal of me.

These three seminal works have salted the discussion of used electronics regulation.  Racially charged imagery, planned obsolescence money, cognitive risk of "toxics" without borders, are everywhere as we look at the arrests of men like Joe Benson, the seizures of goods purchased by Hamdy Moussa, and the closure of refurbishing factories like PT Imtech in Indonesia.  American society, as much as it has progressed, still betrays a willingness to believe in crimes based on the brown-ness of the accused.

Lagos Nigeria has 6,900,000 households with television.   But when someone photographs a solitary junk TV at a Nigerian dump, we assume it was dumped there from Europe.   So sure, that even when it turns out the trade in used electronics is owned, operated, and successfully steered by African owners, the goods triaged by African technicians and repairmen, in a marketplace echoing the success of Singapore's R&O (repair and overhaul), Japan's Network of Tinkerers, Taiwan and Korean reverse-engineering and good enough markets, NGOs are satisfied to see African businesses enchained rather than question the Story of Stuff assumptions.

Answer:  Not much, you?
The sparse number of scrapped goods in the photos at African dumps (see below fold, under the tire) were probably, statistically, generated in the streets of Lagos, one of the largest cities in the world.   But the story, parrotted by all the western press, is that it came out of a sea container, diverted from a recycling program in the USA or Europe.  We are so sure, in fact, that the US Congress now has a bill (H.R. 2791) introduced to make sale of repairable used electronics to Africans a crime.  Why look at photographic evidence when Annie Leonard has drawn it so simply?  African kids get junk because fat western businessmen don't want to pay to recycle it.
Washington, DC, Jul 24 - U.S. Reps. Mike Thompson (CA-05) and Gene Green (TX-29) today introduced H.R. 2791, the Responsible Electronics Recycling Act (RERA) of 2013. The legislation promotes the U.S. recycling industry by prohibiting the exportation of some electronics whose improper disposal may create environmental, health, or national security risks. 

"We'll start by burning the TVs from London hotel upgrades"
So, to truly connect the dots, Africans like Joe Benson and Hamdy Moussa are motivated not by consumer demand in cities like Cairo and Lagos and Accra, but by an altruistic need cut whitie's recycling bill.  But they don't want to do him such a big favor that they'll take ALL the junk, or any of the most expensive.  They cherry pick out the newest looking TVs and computers, to burn them, despite the fact the new ones have much less copper and gold than the old ones we never see in the African containers filmed by BAN and Greenpeace.

This was the circumstantial case presented in the arrests of Africans during the past year.  A few days ago, I got a chance to do a one-on-one, exclusive interview, with Joseph Benson, the man profiled in Jim Puckett's powerpoint presentation, in London.

Leading up to the meeting with Benson, I did a whirlwind tour of Europe by car, meeting at Interpol offices in Lyon (FR), with Basel Convention staff in Geneva and Fribourg (CH), and flew out of Copenhagen.  I met with four Africans accused publicly by Basel Action Network, Greenpeace, Rupert Murdoch's SkyNet News, and the UK Independent reporter Cahal Milmo, of buying used TVs, sold in Lagos for $100 apiece, to be burned by children for $2 in copper scrap.

Robert Ewell, call Sheriff Heck Tate.  There's a Tom Robinson running loose.

To be fair, the folks at Interpol, I'm sure, don't have a racist bone in their bodies.  It might seem "precautionary" to seize hundreds of sea containers filled with used electronics, purchased for repair and resale in African cities.  Why take the risk of being accused of dumping on the poor?  Isn't it the respectable thing to do, to avoid these African buyers, to send TVs for proper destructions, so that the leaded silicate CRT glass, perhaps, maybe, might be recycled?  

Seminal Southern theater:  My Cousin Vinnie
The fact is that internet access and television access have grown exponentially in the "good enough markets" of the emerging nations.    The fact is that nations whose average GDP per capita is about $3,000 per year have grown in internet access at ten times the rate of western countries.   It turns out that people don't invest in internet cable, or cell phone towers, or television stations, in order to wait a decade for 25 million people in Cairo or Lagos or Jakarta to afford a brand new electronic device from Best Buy.  New product sold in Africa costs about double the price of the same unit at USA retail, and the failure rate is higher (manufacturers with ESD - electrostatic discharge failure - tend to redirect bad batches to nations with lower consumer protection and warranty laws).

The Africans saw Americans and Europeans upgrading CRT displays for one reason - because we can afford something flatter.   We want LCDs and plasmas.   The CRT TV repair industry in the USA employed 100,000 people in 1980, according to the US Dept of Labor.   Today there is NO CRT REPAIR in the USA, anywhere.   We test large TVs in Mexico, and most are working, and virtually none of the newer non-working are unrepairable (the same cannot be said of "as is" LCDs, which I'll write about later).

Still, the safe thing to do is to listen to Basel Action Network and Greenpeace, and assume that "up to" 80% of the units purchased by African businesses are intended for dumping, for primitive recycling... even though these buyers, Hamdy and Joe and Gordon, reject 3/4 of the units they are offered.   Even after cherry picking the best 25%, we've been told, the Africans intend to "stack and pack" them for dumping and burning by children.

The arrests of African used electronics traders during the past 3 years, and in the past 12 months in particular, has been painted as a Silent Spring story.  It's not.  Environmentalists are instead killing a mockingbird, and making waste.  This blog is the introduction to the essay I want to write, this weekend, about my trip last week through 6 countries, from South of France to Sweden by car, and my face to face interview with the man accused by Skynews, The Independent, Greenpeace, Basel Action Network, and UK #Wastecrime officers.   A man who sees himself as hopelessly outnumbered, set up in a rigged game, accused of something illogical and financially unsustainable - buying British tellies, and paying them to send them to Africa to be burnt by children.   The Story of Stuff, by Annie Leonard, describes his crime so simply that you almost cannot help but believe he's guilty.

That is the time for us to show real courage.  A friend of mine says "Perception is reality", and says we just cannot afford to reuse items in places where we will be accused of poisoning children.  A financial advisor tells me I'm a fool to risk by business defending someone I haven't even done business with, who I don't really know, and cannot vouch for 100%.

"Real courage is when you know you're licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what".  Or as Huckleberry Finn says, when he can't bring himself to turn in runaway slave negro Jim, "All right then, I'll go to hell."

Tomorrow, I'll let you meet the accused.  I have film of Joe Benson, "Hurricane Joe", the Nigerian man railroaded by SkyNet, and the Independent.  The man's containers were seized in Lagos and Accra, and independently studied by the United Nations Environmental Programme.   They found 91% reuse and repair.  The UNEP found that the "scrap boys" were mostly burning used electronics collected from trade ins by Nigerian and Ghanain consumers, purchased years ago.  And they found that the technical jobs that Joe Benson, Hamdy Moussa, and others created in Africa, pay more than almost any other job.

Yet Interpol has been told to spend a million dollars, money that could be used chasing elephant poachers, or dumping of toxic drums of medical waste, or sex traffickers, child soldiers, kidnappers, etc... Europe took a portion of that money and has used it to net Negro Techs from the streets of London, for the horrendous crime of setting up internet cafes in Africa.    Dictatorships in the dark continent, fearful of the spread of information and internet access, send appointed functionaires to shake Jim Puckett by the hand and thank him for his role lending Western taxpayer dollars to drown out internet thought crime.

Tomorrow, Bullyboy 2.  Annie Leonard, Meet Tom Robinson.

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