OP ED: Recyclers, Stewards Must Free the Geeks of Color

[6/20/2014] We are all familiar with the photos of wide eyed, poor children in faraway, exotic places. CARE, UNICEF and others have tried to be more sophisticated about the “poster child” syndrome, but many others will fill the space. A child’s photo often earns a quick sympathy buck.

It's the gift that keeps on taking. Through either God’s grace or a million years of evolution, we are capable of nurture, we can empathize.  Risk to a child is as frightening as risk to ourselves.

But in a new development, poster children are becoming a tool of major industries. Electronics manufacturers practicing “planned obsolescence” and “big shred” machine makers are funding a photo campaign to stop the secondary market. It is an example of what Peter Buffett calls the "charitable industrial complex" [NYT Op Ed 2013].

Reuse and repair have met anti-gray-market alliances in the back alleys of prohibition trade.  The anti-reuse complex have created a racial profile of traders in used goods. The campaign actually accuses overseas buyers of poisoning their own children.

What is unique about this "e-waste" campaign is that, unlike CARE or UNICEF or Save The Children or OXFAM, the fundraisers do not share a dime of proceeds with the children in the photos.   In a crassly opportunistic way, they actually use the kids images to arrest their parents. Among philanthropic colonialists, the e-waste export campaign is an abusive step parent.

Joe Benson, a 54 year old man, born in Africa, never went to school. He registered legally as a reuse business in London. He was sentenced Thursday to 16 months in prison. During sentencing, either the London judge or the barrister compared Benson's export to "rape". When I compared these "bullyboy" cases to Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" in 2012, little did I know how similar the trials would be.


Joseph Benson of BJ Electronics is just one case.  There are many others.  Huge factories dedicated to reuse and repair jobs in emerging markets are on the ropes. Refurbishers who take rich nations castaways and turn them into internet cafes, cell phones, and mass media for emerging cities, have been shuttered. The scale of the reuse industry is phenomenal. Even in rich nations, like the USA, refurbishment of used products supports 500,000 jobs and $100b in annual sales*.

The trade of hundreds of thousands of used CRT monitors led to widespread internet in Egypt, which led to revolution against the dictator.  One of Mubarak’s last acts was to ban “e-waste”, or 4 year old monitors from being purchased.   Dictators everywhere are looking at the term “e-waste” to justify crackdowns on the people who supply what Harvard Business School calls “the good enough market”.  The Good Enough Market supplies televisions, radios, cell phones and computers to cities like Lagos or Jakarta which now have electricity.  They have TV.  They want to watch the World Cup, they want to read Wikipedia, and they want to share music videos on Youtube.   But people in these cities earn only about $3,000 dollars per year.   That’s enough to get by, but not enough to buy an $800 Dell computer and $600 iPhone.

Americans, Brits, Japanese, Australians and Europeans have been discarding CRT glass displays for flat screens.  Everyone knows the CRTs work for 20 years, but we replaced them after 3 to 5 years.   The used CRTs sell for $20-30 in a city like Accra or Cairo.  They can buy them for $5.  The tubes themselves are built like a battleship, they aren’t fragile, and they can be repaired or rebuilt by TV repairmen.  Capacitors burn out in the USA, and people pay to get rid of the computer.  Thirty years ago, there were 100,000 American electronics repairpeople replacing capacitors.  

It’s not that hard.   

Why do we even think it's hard for an African geek to fix a cut wire on a television? The poster child images and toxic allusions and Halloween alliterations have scared most Americans and Europeans from doing business with Africans. While incidental breakage and bad units are only 7% of Africa's electronics imports, they make up 100% of the western photography. Pictures of African geeks replacing a universal ten pin CRT neckboard (like the one removed by Greenpeace and Skynet in the video that framed Joe Benson) is less exotic, less emotional, and provides less schadenfreude.

The saddest thing is that these repair jobs are good jobs in Africa.  These repairers and fixers actually produce what we call “The Tinkerer’s Blessing”.  It’s the opposite of the curse of natural resources.  Countries like Taiwan, South Korea, and Singapore had few natural resources, but followed Japan’s model.   Buy, repair, refurbish and copy electronics.  It rewards the smartest kids in the class.   

If you are the parent of a kid in Africa today, there are plenty of “careers” that will keep you up at night.  Sex worker.  Child Soldier.  Pirate.   Drug dealer.  Kidnapper.  Gun runner.  Tantalum miner.   If an American throws out a $500 laptop, and your kid, in 45 minutes, replaces the spent capacitor, that’s a really good thing.

It is what Michael Dell did in his Texas dormitory.  It is what Terry Gou of Foxconn did.  It’s what Simon Lin of Wistron did.   It’s what Steve Wozniak did.  It’s what Lee Byung-chul of Samsung did.

The images of poverty have overwhelmed us. They have resulted in an environmentalist crusade to take these jobs away from the emerging markets and the developing world.  But the demand for electronics is so great, prohibitions flood the back alleys of trade.  Kids want digital music in Yaounde, Cameroon, and in Kinshasa, and in Johannesburg.  And they are content to watch it on a 17 inch CRT monitor if that’s the only choice they have.

How did Big Shred, Planned Obsolescence, and Environmental do-gooders get the police involved? The take a delusional environmentalist's orphan statistic, that 80% of used electronics purchased by Africans are burned. Or make up a new factoid that the CRTs "fail within a year". Who are the international police to believe?

In London last week, they did not believe Joseph Benson, despite concrete, third party verification of his testing claims. Like a modern day Tom Robinson, he stood trial surrounded by people who don't know a thing about TV repair. Either the prosecutor or the judge in the case actually compared Benson's "crime" to Robinson's in To Kill a Mockingbird. Black men accused of rape, or accused of e-waste dumping, seem headed for a high tech lynching.

Do I know Joe Benson?  Met him once, never traded with him.   Is he innocent?  Well, before I stick my neck out for someone who's been trading in the back alleys of prohibition, let me tell you this clearly.  How do you judge a man who is accused by liars? His accusers certainly don't know what they are talking about and are making it up as they go along.

Benson's entire industry is accused of doing things they don’t do, accusations funded by their competition.

The wolves of shredding, obsolescence, dictatorships and disposal take cameras to city dumps and film stuff thrown out by Africans, whose cities have had televisions for decades, and tell barristers in London that the TVs in the dump were imported from England.  It’s a lie.  It’s economically impossible.  The TVs in the Lagos dump are visibly different from the TVs in the sea containers.  There are no “toxic acid baths”, it’s just regular open burning and landfill, like we had in Texas when Michael Dell was fixing IBMs for resale.

The wolves of obsolescence wear environmentalist sheepswool, taking environmentalists money out of the hands of the hardest working, smartest people in the developing world...

Habeus Corpus: Show us the bodies.

The "crime scene" of the dumps in Agbogbloshie and Lagos have been well studied and documented since Benson was initially arrested, and Lord Chris Smith made his speech to Interpol. When the UK police originally arrested Joseph Benson of BJ Electronics, they informed the Nigerian government that “toxic waste” was in the containers.   A few years after real environmental criminals dumped Trafigura’s toxic sludge in Cote D’Ivoire, African customs took it very seriously.  And journalists took it seriously, too.  The Independent, BBC News, and Guardian reported the fake statistics, that 80 percent of UK’s electronic waste was being dumped, that less than half were actually reused.

Well something happened. They had 279 sea containers full of used electronics to study. The Basel Secretariat funded an objective Swiss and African organization to itemize the contents.  91% passed the reuse test.  Ninety-one-percent-good.

9% fallout (damage in shipping, or unrepairable problems) isn’t perfect, but it’s actually better than brand new product.  African consumers trust affordable solid state electronics from Europe more than they trust more expensive product from cheap Chinese manufacturers.

The anti-export crusade is a hoax.   Hand dis-assembly of electronics is easy and profitable, and if we allow the trade out for prohibition, out of the back alleys and underground markets, proper recycling and takeback will quickly follow. Many legitimate environmentalists and journalists have honestly believed this hoax.  But now people are going to jail, and it’s time to rip the band-aid off the festering, bleeding, infected “cure” of market prohibition.

This is a war on the geeks of color.   If we won’t stand up for Joe Benson, or Gordon Chiu, or Hamdy Moussa, or Su Fung Ow Young,  or Allen Liu, then we would not have stood up for Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela or Ghandi before they were popular.    Don’t be intimidated by the accusations you don’t care about kids on poster campaigns.   Stand up.  Halloween descriptions of toxic radio repair now have so much collateral damage that history will judge environmentalist harshly.  Fair Trade Recycling advocates are NOT anti-environment.  We are your friends.  ‘

Don’t drink the kool-aid without meeting an African television repairman and hearing his or her side of the story.

This editorial is available for download at https://docs.google.com/document/d/1bB2P2IUBIIkkIgpVaPcwF6oRK-RXZboD09l4x9BSc2w/edit?usp=sharing (in low bandwidth format, without links or bandwith demand photos)

Robin Ingenthron lives in Middlebury, Vermont.  He is founder of WR3A, named Fair Trade Recycling, and association that defends and aids overseas repair and recycling firms.  He has been an environmetnal regulator, a Peace Corps volunteer, and owned an electronics recycling business.   

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