Cultural Gulfs in Developing Markets 7: The Rusty Radiator Awards

Although I had a degree in International Relations, had spent a semester at the UN, and made a career in the science of development, I racially profiled someone in Singapore in 2005.    I know it now.   I deserve a rusty radiator for racism.

On my way back from Guangzhou, where I had gone for a second visit to see the second-hand shops of Foshan and the "Big Secret Factories" of CRT reuse, I stopped in Malaysia and Singapore for a couple of days.   Armed with my camera, I decided to hunt for some "exotic photos" to prove that I too, like Jim Puckett of, had "been there".  Now, Interpol is trumpeting their act. with a project to describe their efforts to arrest "criminals" I refer to as the "geeks of color".

I understand where David Higgins' group at Interpol is coming from.  E-Waste is in the news, and we want to show our credibility, show we have been there, walked the streets, and have seen the problem.  We work for the (world) government, and are here to help. 

The shop below I presented in a Powerpoint slide at a conference as an example (an olive branch to Puckett and Westervelt) of clearly bad imports.   I had stayed on the street, waiting for the man who owned this shop (Mr. Teck Recycle) to roll up the metal door.  He had a ladder on the inside, which he needed to physically climb up to the ceiling to start to descend items for resale on the street. 

I acted like I knew where this guy's material came from.   I didn't.

It seemed the guy had packed this 4M x 10M street shop "to the gills" with imports, and was never going to be able to reuse it all.  I represented this person as an example of "toxics along for the ride", of being an example of the primitive importer, and contrasted him with the SKD (semiknockdown or semi-knock-down) factories I wanted to "reform", in our view.

I confess that I assumed this was all recently imported material.  I had absolutely no evidence of that. We now know that the 6 billion people in the "non-OECD" generate far, far more used electronic scrap than the OECD does.

Lets teach them all the missionary position, put them in top hats, and certify them as non-primitives.

Was Mr. Teck Recycle importing at all?   Singapore, though not "OECD", was already as wealthy then as California.   It had become wealthy via the "Tinkerer's Blessing", the reuse and refurbishment trade, which evolved into contract assembly, then into ODM (Original Design and Manufacture).  Sure, some of this material may have been imported, but I had no idea how long before Mr. Teck Recycle got it.   What percentage came from residents of Singapore, which at that time had a higher percentage of engineering degrees, and higher percentage of online high speed bandwith, than the USA's Silicon Valley?   Why did I immediately assume the Singaporean shops were filled with USA "toxics along for the ride" (a phrase I pounded at the NERC audience?)

Sure, it was a sound theory.  Maybe some of this stuff did come "along for the ride".  But I had no proof, all I had was a need to position myself not-too-distantly from Basel Action Network's "80% Primitive Recycling" export statistic, which we now know is no more true than 80% of Los Angeles black teenagers are gang members and high school drop outs (BTW that's said tongue in cheek, it's obviously untrue, but the fact I have to apologize and point that out shows the root of whitey's problem).

Ghana TV repair 2014

JB Malaysia
The photo, above, was taken by our head technician at Good Point.  He found his own "Mr. Tech Recycle" of Agbogbloshie, Ghana.   But Eric grew up in Ghana, has family there, knows how to repair goods, and know that cities like Accra and Lagos have MILLIONS and MILLIONS of households with Televsions.

It reminds me a lot of the Singapore shop at top.   But now I know things I didn't know then.  Now I have stood on the street of the "E-Scrap" market of Lima, Peru, where Ramzy Kahhat studied the trade.  Kahhat demonstrated 87.5% import for reuse when all the containers were accounted for.  And on that street, the TVs I saw being broken down for copper, came from people who had collected them INSIDE LIMA, a city of about 10 million residents, whose main problem is traffic jams.

All we know for sure from Eric's photograph of the Ghana TV repair shop is that he is probably innocent of any "e-waste" crime.  He certainly should be presumed so, and white people who take pictures of Africans at scrap yards haven't proven otherwise.

My thinking has evolved to where I can no longer assume anything about Eric Prempeh's photos from Ghana (about 80).   Sure, I see junk in the photos, but I don't know whether the junk was used for 5-15 years in Accra and was traded in here, like a used car, for one of the newer pieces Mr. JTB repairman sells.   He is a TV repairman, after all, and what I found among TV repairmen in Worcester, MA in 1998 was smart guys who had junk TVs abandoned on them all the time.   So many people brought in a TV for repair, and then changed their minds, that most TV repairmen in Massachusetts were charging $50 "just to look at it", to cover their cost of junk.   Dick Peloquin of Advanced Electronics, one of those TV repairmen, had opened up second hand shops to try to sell some of the pieces he repaired which the original owner decided not to pick up, preferring to buy new.

Shenzhen China Cell Phone chip reuse

The presence of scrap Japanese autos at USA junk yards does NOT prove that Japan is dumping "a-waste" in the USA.

Dick went on to found Electronicycle, which became the largest TV recycling facility in the USA by 2002, and which eventually sold to Electronics Recyclers International.  I became Dick's VP for 2 years, and learned much of what I know there.

So, I've previously made a big deal about the history of tinkerers, the Michael Dells who repaired PCs in their Texas dorm rooms, the Simon Lins (Acer, Wistron) who produced new plastic housings for used CRTs, or the Terry Gous who refurbished CRTs for sale inside China and India and Indonesia.   These are the Tinkerer Blessing cases, which were built on a trade which didn't have 100% reuse, but which extended the cost of carbon and toxics from extraction, made internet and mass media affordable, and created democracies and modern societies in places which were considered "primitive" just 50 years ago.  And we can add to that history the backbone of the USA's CRT Recycling (and reuse) industry, Massachusetts DEP's Y2K waste ban, which Electronicycle carried out the infrastructure for.

Lima Peru TV repair

So I apologize.

I apologize to my audience at NERC, I apologize to Mr. Teck Recycle in Singapore, I apologize to Jinex in Peru and Helen Su in Shenzhen and Hamdy in Egypt, and all the people I posed as an "expert" to.  I apologize because I tried to "split the difference" with a maurading hoax maker.   I'm giving myself a "Rusty Radiator Award" for the 2006 NERC powerpoint presentation.

USA Expert declares Overseas Buyers "primitive"
USA Expert says "some are primitive, some aren't"
No one asks the overseas experts, either one, anything...

In retrospect, I feel I called the repair people "articulate" and apologized for them, introducing them as exceptions, not primitive dumpers, while showing shots to prove I knew that the primitive dumping was real.

I hedged my bets in 2006 with Charles Schmidt in NIHS (Unfair Trade e-Waste in Africa), when a much more "self confident" Jim Puckett was being interviewed about African "e-waste dumping".  I told Jim that Nigeria was a bigger problem than Asia, and Jim thanked me for sending him there.

Egypt CRT monitor reuse

The result?   The "night of breaking CRT glass", teed up by the late 2008 CBS 60 Minutes, National Geographic, and Frontline stories, about primitives in Africa and China who were living happily in fields of nature, who were dumped on by western recyclers in an Interpol-worthy crime crackdown that equates TV repair with actual hazardous waste dumping disasters like 2006 Cote D'Ivoire, or elephant poaching, or conflict mining.  I questioned the Basel Action Network's "80% Exports" statistic, but did it deferentially, in a way to make myself seem "middle of the road".  

Karma got me in the undertow.  Because I allowed the story to grow, and began defending the trade too late, Cathy Jamieson of ANR was in a position a couple of months ago to tell a roomful of our Vermont clients that I was dumping e-waste on poor countries.   That nasty, nasty 6% reuse.

Try this on for size.   Mr. John the Baptist TV repairman in Ghana may be the best damn thing that country has going for it.  He may be Africa's Dick Peloquin.  He may hold the key to recycling the massive flows of e-waste that originate in Africa's own cities, and he may figure out a way to scale the repair, like Proview, BenQ, Wistron and Foxconn did, and may make West Africa in to a Shenzhen of high tech assembly, on the same road as South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore followed.

Who the heck are we to judge, when 279 sea containers seized and examined showed 91% reuse and repair, equivalent to Kahhat and Williams Peru study?  Who is Interpol to say that this is a "crime"?  Let's have a little "due process", a little "habeus corpus" and stop posing as experts.  Sit down, turn on some music, and listen to the techs represent their jobs before we villify them in the Guardian.
2006 Indonesia 5000 CRT per day refurb

Let's put the brakes on racial profiling, shall we?  E-Waste Policy deserves the biggest "" award of them all.   I went in person to invite Interpol officers in Lyon, France, to meet with the importers, to interview them, and to understand the "crime scenes" above.  

Yes, electronics have an end of life.  But cadavers found at hospitals don't make doctors into murderers, and abandoned repair jobs at Fixers don't turn techies into criminals, either.

I did show lots of pretty factory photos of scaled up refurbishing at the NERC conference.  I'm just apologizing for pretending to know the "uglier" and smaller scale "informal" businesses were guilty when I didn't know what I was talking about.  Time for all of us to shut up and listen.

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