EU E-Waste Policy: White Knights Seeking Middle Ground On a Slippery Slope (Part A)

"Solving the E-Waste Problem"  (StEP) is a European association of highly respected professional and academic experts with strong policy pedigrees.   The "Problem Solving" effort is coming into its eight year.  American environmentalists are keen for European environmental leadership.   The electric windmills fanning the landscape are a testament to proactive policy.

StEP represents itself as a "middle ground" organization.  A lot of us have pandered for that position.  BAN labels us as "apologists".

It is natural to seek to leverage the sensational press around "ewaste exports" and the growing tome of facts about international city junkyards.  Agents of conscience naturally seek a middle ground between the Basel Action Network and...  Facts.  Or is it a middle ground between us and "The Other?"   Otherization, or exoticism, the "informal" six out of seven billion people, who have been labelled so likely to poison their children that it warrants a billion dollars in shredding machines and arrests of African traders.  Since BAN has imposed a kind of "original sin" on anyone who has ever purchased an electronic device, replaced one, or sent one for recycling, we begin with a sense of guilt.   "Agents of conscience" once included exporters, a previous generation of ICT and Internet Access "white knights", organized to heal the "digital divide".

These forces have given rise to another EU based organization seeking "middle ground" between internet access and environmental risk of computer waste.  RecyHub has posted an essay on ICTWorks which follows the path into the "middle ground", or "best of two worlds".  RecyHub has asked me, via Twitter, to review it.    ("They asked for it" is an English idiom).

On the one hand, they get the easy A.  A for "Applaud Anything" that moves Europe from the extremely bizarre far-left arrests of African businesspeople, geeks, and technicians.   Any correction from the 2009-2010 "years of breaking CRT glass", is a gift horse.  But since they asked, I have to tell them... they are at a halfway point between alter-globalization (WR3A) and racist slander.
"Electronic components contain toxics and their manipulation without proper tools can easily release them, resulting in environmental damage and health hazards. Up to now electronics have been mainly used in the most industrialized countries and dumped somewhere else when they reached their (perceived) end of life. Although this trade geography is slowly changing, some countries continue to be known e-waste recipients. Ghana, for instance, is trapped between the desire to modernise by acquiring and refurbishing technology and the damaging effects of it when it’s not reusable...
"After all, they don’t have the technology to process that material properly. E-waste exports must therefore end. That’s why a strict ban like the one proposed under the Basel Convention makes sense (taken even further to forbid any e-waste trade), and why the work of countering illegal trade must be supported. 
One thing I've always loved about Europe is the tradition of arguing sophisticated philosophical positions from a historical perspective.  The Europeans often assume Americans don't do that, that we operate in business from some kind of a "lizard brain", seeking efficiency and profit.

OK, Critique of Part A, in pure reason.
  1. Toxics are not "easily released".  Europe had to build shredders, which certainly releases them.  Hand disassembly, harvesting parts and components (down the chips and capacitors and power supplies) is not going to yield toxics.  
  2. Up to now electronics have not "mainly" been dumped somewhere else at the end of their perceived life.  
  3. "Some countries continue to be known e-waste recipients.  Ghana, for instance, is trapped..."  This is absolutely contrary to the study RecyHub refers to, which says Ghana is NOT an "e-waste recipient" but is a 85-91% reuse recipient which generates 90% of its own "e-waste".
  4. "Proper tools"?  A downstroke baler is the most complicated tool we use in Vermont.   The best one we bought used for $2,000.
On the third point, simply visit RecyHub's website, where an entire tab titled "Ghana" offers very scientificky looking "statistics".  It links to a Google Documents Page, with "comment function" enabled, which mostly takes statistics from the E-Waste Assessment (Ghana) study (they should also read the larger Nigeria E-Waste Assessment report).
"9% of the total imports of used equipment is non-repairable and is directly passed on to collectors and recyclers."
The very report they cite disproves most of the allegations.  Nigeria's Assessment was more precise, finding 91% repair and reuse, but we'll accept the 80% estimate from the Ghana study (statistics taken from interviews in the latter case, from actual sea container sorts in the Nigeria study).  In either case, brand new product is as bad or worse.  In either case, the studies explain how Nigeria came to have (World Bank 2007 statistic from 2006 assessment) 6,900,000 households with television.  And cities which have had TVs since Prince Nico Mbarga was on the top 10 are generating junk TVs, just as American and European cities do.

What do developing nations really need?  More development.  And taking away "trade" from the toolkit is exactly what they need least.

Where do "tinkering", "reuse", "recycling", "dumping" etc. fall in Harvard's new Social Progress Index?  If you spend time with people who live in the emerging markets, the developing nations, the cities of the "not yet OECD", their aspirations and measures of progress make Europe and America's obsession with "used electronics dumping" seem obscured by clouds of disinformation.

RecyHub apparently concedes, off the bat, that amending the Basel Convention to ban make the trade of used goods illegal (the "proposed" Basel Ban Amendment) makes sense.  The Basel Convention DOES make sense as it specifically allows the trade under Annex IX B1110.  

I appreciate RecyHub, as I do StEP.  But placing ourselves halfway between the facts and a self-enriching environmental group is not brave.   Collateral damage is being inflicted on emerging markets, based on stereotypes.   Appeasing the friendly fire is a mistake.

RecyHub, the moral thing to do is to read the studies you've posted, then do in-depth interviews of African businesspeople who have been accused in the media.  What you will find is that the E-Waste Assessment studies themselves post ugly photos and appear to apologize to, or bend over backwards not to offend, the people who produced the atrocious fake statistic ("80% of exports") which puts African, Latino, and Asian IT professionals in the firing line.  The photos on the cover of the Ghana E-Waste Assessment sought to deliver the good news without offending the doomsayers... The studies found the Africans innocent, but looked for "middle ground" with the accusers.

Real people, friends and strangers as well as competitors, are getting ruined by European cops who believe the "80 percent waste export" statistics which Emile Lindemulder took, hook-line-and-sinker, to Interpol in 2009.  He told me in person he was surprised to discover that Africans were the buyers and sellers in Europe, exporting to other Africans who are friends.   And that they pay for the material, rather than charge for it.  And they reject MOST of the material at EU collection sites.  RecyHub needs to find African importers and treat them as equals, and not as "articulate exceptions" to quasi-racist poverty imagery marketing (a.k.a. "poverty porn"). 

Real human beings have been accused.  Real people.  Behind the squatting kids, there are people collecting used electronics from inside African cities, electronics that were imported decades ago.  They are the ones bringing the junk to places like Agbogbloshie.   Africans are bringing in their old radios and TVs and monitors and trading them in to repair shops for newer used goods, recently imported.

And they are not getting interviewed by the Guardian, by the Independent, or by CBS 60 Minutes.  CBS notoriously did NOT interview the SKD factories which imported CRT monitors shown in Hong Kong, they went somewhere else, to a place with no CRT monitors anywhere in sight, and interviewed another Chinese person who did NOT buy the goods circled in the helicopter.  And won a Pelly Award for it!

The general photos of squatting children ("the gift that keeps on taking") at African and Chinese city dumps are not "habeus corpus". There's a corpus there, all right.  But the bodies of used electronics shown in Agbogbloshie are not the same as the units photographed in the sea containers.  There is at least 10 years difference between the age of the imported goods and the age of the dumped junk.  Americans who retire to Florida may well wind up in a Florida cemetery, but the presence of cemeteries in Florida doesn't prove retirement communities are slaughterhouses.

Each person who has been accused, and each containerload intercepted, has rights.  RecyHub has a burden of proof in part one which is not supported by the studies.  That's what makes it so dangerous, most people aren't reading the ITC Reports or E-Waste Assessments, and when you post the report on your website and then refer to "E-Waste Hoax" allegations on the same website, people may actually think that the studies found evidence of the alleged crimes.

Apply Occam's Razor to the problem.

CRTs work for 20 years and Europeans got rid of them after 5 years.  Africans can afford a $50 CRT television, and cannot afford an $800 flat screen.  The growth of African households with television is 5 times faster than imports of new televisions.

Occam's razor says that the people buying and selling the goods is better explained by common economic interest than it is by a complicated explanation that one party to the trade is behaving irrationally (paying more for transport than the copper can be sold for), wrongly, and illegally.

Part B:  How to Disarm the Friendly Fire or Environmental Malpractice


boronat said...

Thanks for this review (and the one upcoming). I have several questions and comments:

- I'm convinced that "electronics and environment", including e-waste, is a global issue. I don't see why you bring in EU vs USA perspectives.

- If toxics are not "easily released", how do you explain the pollution in Agbogbloshie? Have you considered the plastic burning, leaded CRT dumping?

- You rebute that e-waste is being dumped somewhere else from the countries where it was used. In my view, that's against Lepawsky's data. Where do you think it was being dumped then?

- I think we should define what "waste" is before moving on. I'll tell you my definition: If it has been discarded, it's waste. It might be a resource AS WELL, but you can't say it's not waste. Therefore Ghana is receving waste.

- Our statistics all show their source. Is there any source you find questionable?

- Finally: if you think we're placing ourselves in a halfway position, you're missing the point. You might have embraced one end of the line, but what we're trying to do is to find a position "outside the box" of the current debate.

Thanks again for your critics, and looking forward for the second part of them.
Rafa Font

WR3A's Robin Ingenthron said...

I agree it's a global issue. I believe that exports from the USA and EU are mostly good items, and that most of the bad items (at the dump) originate in country (Lagos had 6.9M households with TV in 2007)

Most of Agbogbloshie pollution comes from automobile scrap. But I think the question is whether "fire" is "easy". Fire will not release lead from CRT. But most Agbogbloshie scrappers SELL the circuit boards. They can also sell the plastic. Wire burning is a problem, but most of the wire burned is from construction, cable lines torn from houses and buildings, little of it from imported e-scrap.

Lepawsky shows most trade is either internal generated or between e.g. non-OECD and non-OECD (Bangladesh to China). I may misunderstand your question.

I do not consider that if someone buys a device from me that I have "discarded" it. If they buy it and use it, and eventually discard it, then they have discarded it.

The Nigeria E-Waste Assessment and Ghana E-Waste Assesment studies found 91% reuse and 85% reuse, respectively, from imports. Most of the informal scrapping is not from the 9% or 15% residuals, but is collected in cities like Accra and Lagos, or is brought and traded in for more recently imported material.

We agree on formalizing and giving tools for proper recycling, and encouraging proper recycling methods. My position is that proper recycling in Africa is best financed by sales of used equipment from EU, USA and Japan - and increasingly from Chinese cities like Hong Kong.

There is no evidence that 80% waste can be economically transported, and the original "source" of that statistic has retracted it.

I enjoy the discussion and compliment you for being willing to listen and for inviting dialectic, it has been too rare.

boronat said...

I'm actually planning my first trip to Agbogbloshie in a month from now. I admit I have a view constructed by documentaries and journal articles, but I will complement that with a 6-week stay.

Fire, whether easy or not, is one "tool" commonly used, and it's hazardous both for the environment and for the health of the workers. With the information I have, I don't consider that the recycling processes being carried out there are adequate.

About the discards and waste definition I'm trying to find a common ground to discuss. If we have different definitions we might not understand each other. I also struggle defining it. The graph I tweeted is an attempt to understand the different points of view:

I'm also enjoying the discussion and I appreciate we can have a friendly tone to continue with it. I'm willing to learn and I have a lot of questions ;)

WR3A's Robin Ingenthron said...

Great to hear you are visiting Ghana. We have some WR3A members who live there or are from there.

Agblo is the "morgue" of the electronics hospital. What you should do is take up the total denominator of imports to Ghana from one of the UN studies, in units per month imported, and try to account for that number.

In July 2012 I wrote three blogs titled "Defining E-Waste Racism". Part two was an attempt to contrast "fly and buy", Africans who come to Europe to buy used electronics, whom Interpol labelled as "waste tourists". You will be another type of "waste tourist". Not an insult. Just an attempt at equality.

You should also introduce yourself to Eric Prempeh, our Good Point tech, who's from Ghana, and Dr. Lepawsky's researcher Grace Akese.