Response to The Lancet: Electronic waste—time to take stock

Electronic waste—time to take stock

A member of WR3A based on Sao Paulo, Brazil, emailed me a copy of an article in the respected journal "The Lancet" yesterday.   It reminded me of the Charlie Schmidt article in Environmental Health Perspectives in 2006, when I was interviewed, and unfortunately, kept a hand tied behind my back.   Charlie erred on the side of "white guilt" and wrote an article that supported J. Puckett's of now completely discredited allegation that African importers were "mostly" importing TVs to be burned for copper.   Puckett only recently admitted (in the comment section of an article by Bloomberg) that he had done no research while in Africa and made the "80%" statistic up.  He simply made it up.

Profiling kids at dumps
I now realize that once an allegation is printed in a respected journal, like EHSP or The Lancet, especially when accompanied by "poverty photos" of kids at dumps, that the "presumption of guilt" shifts, rather violently, against reuse FIXers techs geeks of color.  The white guilt ricochets around, and in the end, it's the African, like Hamdy of Egypt or Benson of Nigeria, who is accused, arrested, loses his business.

For that reason, my new policy is to never let a "reporter", like Dr. Jack Caravanos, off the hook as easily as Charles Schmidt.  I haven't met him yet, am certain he's a good guy, just like Therese Shyrane and David Higgins of Interpol, and UK enforcement leaders lik Graeme Vickery  (a supporter of Joe Benson's arrest).  All good people, armed with the statistics Basel Action Network hallucinated, who think that most African importers are guilty of #wastecrime.


Dear Mr. Caravanos,

Are you the author of the piece in the Lancet?  First, I want to congratulate you on entering the discussion, and second, to introduce you to three professors who are working on a grant together to explore reform, rather than ban, of the trade.  Dr Lepawsky is from Memorial University, Dr. Goldstein from USC, and Dr. Kahhat teaches engineering at PCU Peru.

"Much e-waste (estimated to total 45·6 million tons in 2012) originates in developed countries. Treaties such as the 1989 Basel Conventionprohibit the export of defunct electronic equipment for disposal in developing countries. However, a loophole that allows the export of electronic equipment for re-use results in most of this retired equipment ending up in developing countries—a problem exacerbated by a lack of resources to test equipment for functionality. E-waste output from developing countries is also rising rapidly, and will soon overtake the developed world as the dominant source."

While there is definitely an element of truth here, and while the aspects of bored children burning things in landfills is completely unacceptable, I'd like to invite you to revisit the article from another point of view.   According to several studies, the import of used electronics cannot really be explained, economically, by any economics of "externalization".  Externalization of recycling costs definitely exists, but would not explain the sorting of loads sold.   From what I've personally observed, cities like Accra and Lagos have had television and electronics for several decades, and the way their own eventual discards are treated bears reform in the same way ours did two decades ago.

Nigeria, in 2007, had 6,900,000 households with television (World Bank).  And according to a 2012 storty, the UNEP, which intercepted and tested 279 sea containers imported by Nigerian techs, found 91% reuse in those containers - actually higher reuse rate than brand new product sold in Africa.  I'll share two quotes from the UNEP studied (funded in part by a grant from the Basel Secretariat).

"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 
Here's another quote from the Nigeria E-Waste Assessment Study:
"Refurbishing of EEE and the sales of used EEE is an important economic sector (e.g. Alaba market in Lagos). It is a well-organized and  a dynamic  sector that holds the potential for further industrial development. Indirectly, the sector has another important economic role, as it supplies low and middle income households with affordable ICT equipment and other EEE. In the view of the sector’s positive socio-economic performance, all policy measures aiming to improve e-waste management in Nigeria should refrain from undifferentiated banning of  second-hand imports and refurbishing activities and strive for a co-operative approach by including the market and sector associations."
If you simply mean that most of the used goods imported to Africa work or are repaired, but will eventually be discarded in a decade or two, I'd agree with that, since 70% of the sales documented (product in use) are used product.  I don't think that mining more lead, tin, copper etc. to make brand new product, however, would either eliminate the eventual dumping problem.  It would certainly elevate the exposure of Africans to lead and other pollution - hard rock metal mining is the primary source of toxics in both the USA and Africa.

The photo above, taken from a film by Greenpeace, shows a typical load of imports.  Frequently these are used CRTs taken out of hotels, upgraded for flat screens.  The Africans who purchase them are very picky, and you will not see a lot of variety of age or type of e-waste in these loads.

I'd invite you to visit my plant in Vermont, or to come down and meet with you at CUNY.  Our organization, Fair Trade Recycling ( is dedicated to improving quality of loads sold to repair and refurbishing markets.. The moral of your article seems to be that the "reuse" is some kind of a "loophole", and that people should be somehow ashamed if some of the goods sold or repaired in Accra or Lagos originated in New York.   I'm afraid that "boycott" attitude has not been very effective, driving entrepreneurs into back alleys to find the computers and televisison Africans need but cannot afford to buy new.

Robin Ingenthron

So that's my "open letter" to Jack Caravanos.  I hope I didn't burn any bridges.  I still correspond with Charles Schmidt, who unfortunately cannot get an editor interested in exhuming the bodies for DNA tests.


Just last November, at the E-Waste Summit in Las Vegas, I sat and watched Jim Puckett display photos of Nigerian containers, and display the article by Cahal Milmo, in his powerpoint presentation.  He gestured to me, in the audience, and thanked me for "telling him about Africa", and said afterwards he never would have gone to Lagos or Ghana if it weren't for me.  This was during the infamous 6-month (2012) Interpol crackdown and arrests from August to December, 2012, of African used electronic traders in Europe... and two years after the UNEP study of their containers found that the used product had 91% reuse rates.   Four years after Ramzy Kahhat and Eric Williams found 87% reuse rates in imports into Peru.  The grand African "E-Waste Hoax" continues.

What does BAN say about the UNEP 91% Reuse Study?
"I am very satisfied with the quality of the UNEP studies. I know well the authors and have worked with them and discussed findings with them.   These studies were funded due to our film Digital Dump which was shown at the Basel meeting whereafter the EU donated 1 million Euros to assist Africa in solving the e-waste crisis."  - Jim Puckett 
Sooo... UNEP says the kids at the dump are burning (mostly) waste collected from African generators in African cities.   UNEP says that 91% of imports are reused (better rate than brand new product).   BAN withdraws it's "mostly dumping" 80% statistic.  And yet respected journals like the Lancet continue the roast of reuse and recycling, rather than turn their sites on the mining which really poisons African kids.

Not much going on
Puckett told me that the Basel Convention, if not amended, is "worse than no law at all". Why would he say that? Because Annex IX of the convention makes all of this export for repair and recycling LEGAL.  He wants it to be amended, to make export for repair and recycling illegal, and he feels so strongly about that, he'll tell people it's already illegal, and will exaggerate the 9% of imports that get recycled rather than reused.  

Getting black techs arrested seems like a small price to pay if you are that darn sure of yourself.   I have never met anyone so sure of himself.  The organization has a cancer it must remove.  It is unforgiveable that they are standing idly by while Tinkerers lives are ruined.

What is remarkable about the video embedded in The Lancet is how little the scrap boys are doing.  Bored kids, burning waste appliances, at the dump.   We now know that most of these scrap products (like the refrigerator burned here) were collected from homes and businesses in cities like Accra.  If Lagos has 6.9 million households with televisions, it will have e-waste without imports, as does India (which has e-waste and virtually no imports of used electronics).

If you can get the public to accept, generally, that 80% of African American drivers are criminals, you can comfortably continue to profile them, pull them over for DWB.  This is what is happening today in Africa.  Jim Puckett is not telling the truth about used electronics imports, and until he publicly does something to withdraw his false witness testimony against African technicians, he and his organization are responsible for these injustices.  They are responsible for the bill (supported by "big shred" coalition CAER, which reprinted the 80% "criminal" statistic in a report by DSM in January 2013) to ban sale of used electronics to Africans, HR 2284, which will turn a victimless trade into a true crime, effectively bypassing BAN's inability to amend the Basel Convention, which, despite their protests, explicitly legalized trade in repair and reuse under Annex IX, B1110, as well as export for recycling itself, so long as no Annex III pollution results.

Switch the titles please.
All the returned Peace Corps volunteers I have spoken with agree with me... the electronics repair jobs are the best job their favorite students could have.   The list of truly bad "jobs", like pirate and thief and child soldier and ivory hunter and coltan miner and sex worker and virgin lead smelter, belong on the list of things celebrities, do-gooders, and college professors should be concerned about.  They could be hunting real gorillas, instead of re-mixing Gorillaz.

Ninety-one percent repair and reuse is NOT on the list of bad jobs.   It would be better to have no environmental dumping laws at all than to lynch these people in the press.   If you have donated a dime to Basel Action Network (and some people have donated much more than a dime), you should undo it with a Kiva loan aimed at electronics repair-people.  If you have signed a Pledge, or advocated for E-Stewards, you are donating rope to the lynch mob.

Ok then - Not to put too fine a point on it.   Stop filming 2 kids for 10 minutes burning a single refrigerator, and linking it to photos of men removing hotel takeout CRTs, wrapped in plastic, for sale in Lagos.   Stop it.  Stop it.  Mr. Schmidt, Mr. Caravanos, Mr. Pelley, Ms. Gross, Mr. Siegler, Mr. Higgins, everyone who has printed Puckett's lies, you owe Hurricane Benson, Hurricane Hamdy, and Hurricane Chiu a sincere personal apology.  If you do not reach out and stop it, Interpol intends "Project Enigma" and "Project Eden" to continue to cirumvent reuse, reduce, recycle hierarchies, and dictators in Africa will continue to have excuses to shut down the internet cafe entrepreneurs who made the "African" or "Arab Spring" possible.  Raphael Rowe, of all people, should know better than to cut a wire, easily fixed, buy a TV for 40 British pounds, and tell people it was sent for primitive wire burning. (Rowe served part of a murder sentence for which he was later found innocent.  Let's hope he'll be willing to listen).

You shut this fair trade recycling factory down last year.   It was our plan to move it, duplicate it, in Africa last year, but the Interpol arrests put a big damper on that investment.  We were shipping computer monitors from Stewards in Vermont to Penang, and having them re-manufactured into Arab-warranty displays for sale in Cairo.   With our Malaysian and Egyptian parnters, we made these into $30 CRTs, the only device Egyptian students can afford.

An R2 Auditor pursuing "tier 2" permission wrote the Malaysia EPA, and they withdrew the import permit.  No fine, no allegation of anything illegal, they just didn't want Malaysia to be accused of supporting sales of displays to Egypt.   The ricochets of environmental do-gooding took more jobs away, and killed our plan to move the operation to create jobs in Ghana.   The Malaysia factory had been taking back junk CRTs from inside Malaysia, and recycling the glass at Samsung.  It was beautiful.   And the reporters told everyone that the CRTs were being burned in Guiyu, and hung the technicians out to dry.

At long last, have you no sense of decency?  Have you no shame?  I'm begging you.  Please stop the madness.

Hear the beat.  Kids at dumps.  Kids at dumps.

Oh, I think I recognize Mike Anane in the video again.  I met him in DC, along with the Ghana EPA director.  The Ghana EPA director agreed with me.  Anane agreed with Jim Puckett, who he said was the source of his statistic about 80% primitive dumping in Africa.   BAN, you will find, references Anane.   If I treated Anane differently than I have any of the other reporters, I'd be guilty of a double standard.   So here goes:  Anane's source doesn't know what he's talking about and is making it up as he goes along, and Anane's failure to follow up is inexcusable.

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