E-Waste Tragedy 10: The Crime is a Curiosity

This week, in one of my favorite magazines, The Atlantic, we get yet another "Gaze" on Agbogbloshie to finish the year.   Yepoka Yeebo recycles the story that suggest Africans like Emmanuel Nyaletey, Miguel Artur Aziz, Hamdy Moussa, Wahab Muhammed "Project Eden" comes to Africa's rescue, putting African Joseph Benson in prison.

The Tinkerer's Blessing is not "stuff".  The Blessing IS The Tinkerers themselves.  The reuse, repair, shangzhai, ifixit, repairers made Singapore, all the Asian Tiger economies, out of reuse.  They repaired for resale, harvested parts to build around.   Why don't we see that Africa's strongest economic growth is grown by GENIUSES in the same reuse/hacker mode?

The TRAGEDY is that we are putting Tinkerers in jail, accusing them of importing junk for burning (economically impossible), drafting Guidelines around "protecting Eden".  Bullets to the head of Africa's best and brightest, shot by green do-gooders, in a perverse friendly fire.

"The Crime is Curiosity" (1995's The Hackers)

In E-Waste Tragedy 1-6, we dug into the law - or rather "guidelines" for export of used electronics which BJ Electronics was accused of violating.  I believe Joe Benson pleaded guilty (in return for a reduced sentence) because he did not know how to argue that a "Guideline" is not a law.  The Guidelines were developed under the PACE committee, which was charged with reducing the alleged 80% bad exports.   A statistic which was a lie.

A lie supported by "Soddom and Gomorrah" images, and coverage by Scientific American of a fake, fudged, hoax claim mysteriously given credence by Blacksmith Institute a year ago (December 17, 2013).  The Atlantic, ironically, just treads safe ground in Agbogbloshie.

Something had to be done, and the Guidelines were something, therefore Joe Benson had to follow the Guidelines... even though the Guidelines never claim to be law, and the viable recommendations submitted to PACE by the geeks themselves ("elective upgrade") were ignored.  The Guidelines were drafted to provide "guidance" to environmental enforcement agencies, like Chris Smith's UK Environmental Agency, not as guidance for entrepreneurs like Souleymane, Wahab, or Hamdy.  Beat cops, like Cees Van Duijin of Interpol, needed something to tell them whether a sea containerload of used CRT televisions from a hotel LCD upgrade were evidence of #wastecrime.   PACE protected USA and EU refurbishing companies, allowing them to "determine" reuse, with no say from the expert buyers.

Stewardship's Hashtag Selfie  [Top 11 Parodies of "AID" in 2014]

In Tragedy 2 I provided (buried the story perhaps) a link to alternative comments prepared for the PACE Committee by WR3A and American Retroworks (my company) following interviews with geeks in Malaysia, Egypt, Mexico, who created the term "elective upgrade" to describe how they could generate "PACE waste" without doing anything wrong, out of "fully functional" devices.  None of their comments made it into the PACE Guidelines.  Instead, enforcement people were basically told that while export for repair was legal, that white people needed to fix things in rich countries because black people couldn't "determine" whether a good was a waste or not.  Under 40 CFR 261, the determination (or "toe tag") that identifies a CRT as "waste" or commodity is color blind;  this is what PACE and E-Stewards and WEEE were determined to "fix".

Another blog series this year focused on "game theory".   I opened that series with a discussion of how the game of Risk changes between human players when one player has won several games in a row.  From there, the series went into the psychological momentum called "groupthink".

For Joe Benson, the fix was in.

So how do I assemble this series of blogs into a weighty enough tome to make a difference?  In the conclusion of "Tragedy", I'll channel the philosopher and political scientist who influenced great Supreme Court justices.  We're almost there.  Then, in 2015, I will start the "Cliff Notes" project, to bird dog and summarize references.

From Lagos to Johannesburg and Nairobi, many Africans face traffic jams and high costs in their daily journey to get to work.
A Random Walk Down Wall Street, West Africa

Over morning coffee I was reading the current edition of Harvard Business Review.  In "Making Dumb Groups Smarter",  Cass Sunstein and Reid Hastie discuss how opinions either polarize or moderate depending upon the diversity of the roots of the group.  In a box out, they describe how two focus groups, selected from conservative Colorado Springs CO and liberal Boulder CO, will sharpen their opinions, or gain nuance, after spending time with fellow liberals and conservatives.    You can see it happening on Facebook, if you have a friend that has no conservative friends or no liberal friends, they become more and more confident in simpler and simpler explanations and "guidelines". Gerrymandering our democracy makes every politician certain of his/her "landslides", and less nuanced or willing to cooperate.


My opinion on "e-waste export bans" comes from groups I hang out with...  Egyptians, Senegalese, Chinese, Malaysian, Peruvian, Colombian, Cameroonian, Guatemalan, Mexican people who come stay at my house and break bread, eat rice and spicy beans, and roast chickens.   If you look at the StEP, R2 Solutions, and E-Stewards "consensus" groups, you see Guidelines written by suppliers without any demand side in the consensus.   That's a recipe for a guideline to imprison Africans to keep them from selling European goods in African secondary markets.

Were these Guidelines the mistake to be forgiven in a first draft?  Perhaps.   But it wasn't a first draft.  In E-Waste Tragedy One, we saw the link to the document submitted to the PACE committee with comments from "non-OECD" (if you include OECD Mexico) points about parts generated from "elective upgrade".     Below is an even earlier suggested Guideline - one I distributed in 2002.

Here, from March 2002, when I had recently left the Massachusetts DEP, and 2 months after I bought my first truck (I was the sole employee, doing mostly consulting), with my first logo, were my guidelines.

"Export Standards and Practices for Electronics Recycling Businesses" never took off in 2002.


It's a much simpler document than the MPPI or PACE, or WEE or Interpol Guidelines.   And if these had been the questions posed of Mr. Joseph Benson, he would not have been put in UK jail.   There are a lot of things we could do to change and add to it, but it's difficult to image the long MPPI documents surviving the way this one has for nearly 13 years.

Benson was ironically sentenced a year after BAN was caught fibbing about it's "wastecrime" statistics, and trying to explain the Africa REuse Proof Assessments by saying that Benson and others seized containers tested 91% good thanks to BAN's action.   They took credit for the quality of the used goods exports, from the samples of the seized containers.   I swear, you can't make this up.


The Emporer is still grabbing fig leafs and explaining his royal robe is in the laundry.

BAN has just recently come out and suggested their Ban Amendment Guidelines (never reviewed or passed by any legislature, not even voted in at Basel Convention) may have gone too far, and should be relaxed.   But we see BAN still trying to make its case why the Annex IX of the Convention, which explicitly makes export for repair LEGAL, should not be.

"Preventing the Digital Dump:  Ending Re-use Abuse"


It's certainly a more punchy title.  And it makes its case that the Guidelines (somewhat less punchily titled "Technical Guidelines on the Transboundary Movements of e-Waste and used electrical and electronic equipment, in particular regarding the distinction between waste and non-waste under the Basel Convention")

This is the task of the "Technical Guidelines on the Transboundary Movements of e-Waste and used electrical and electronic equipment, in particular regarding the distinction between waste and non-waste under the Basel Convention," and at COP11 this draft document is expected to be adopted. It is probably the most significant, far reaching action to be taken at COP11. 
"It is very important that we get it right. This document has drawn much from the work already completed by the Partnership for Action on Computing Equipment (PACE), the Mobile Phone Partnership Initiative (MPPI), and the European Union's EEE Directive. COP11 provides the Parties with an opportunity to improve on those earlier influential documents and make them more protective of developing countries. It is vital to ensure in these Guidelines that the Basel Convention must apply to all exports of hazardous electronic parts or equipment that are either untested or tested and found not to be fully functional.
"Export for repair and refurbishment will fall under Basel if parts are non-functional and hazardous or untested. While the words “repair” or “refurbishment” do not appear in the Annex IV lists, equipments sent for repair or refurbishment will, in part, be relegated to Annex IV operations when the repair or refurbishment requires that a part of the equipment be replaced and the old part disposed of or recycled (e.g. bad batteries, mercury lamps, cathode ray tubes (CRT) etc.). Thus such equipment must be considered waste and when hazardous -- hazardous waste. " 
Follow this?   It is a case against elective upgrade.  If one of the 6 billion "non-OECD" technicians in Africa, Asia and South America upgrades a 512K RAM to 1 gig, the elective upgrade, even if properly recycled "must be consdered waste".  BAN was in communication with me, read the case for elective upgrade, and went on the offensive.

BAN's still lobbying to make a group of delegates adapt Guidelines which make export for reuse and repair - specifically legal under Annex IX, illegal if the export for repair involves - repair (changing or a part).    The Guideline for "export for repair" allowed under Basel is, according to BAN, "fully functional".  That is what BAN says makes it illegal for an African or Asian geek to cherry pick their own loads, to make the determination for themselves of what has value.  That is what makes Lord Chris Smith the final expert of what Joe Benson, a television repairman with 30 years of experience, can purchase and export.

White guys do the determination.  Black guys go to jail.   Even when independent Swiss researchers, on UN funding, find that the black dudes are more successful than they are buying brand new product in boxes, and even when Interpol and EA admit on camera that they don't have reuse expertise (and demonstrate as much by "cutting a wire" to "pre determine" an item is waste /  BBC-Panorama).

Remember the first Blog in the E-Waste Tragedy series, with links to the Guidelines WR3A submitted to UN representative John Micklethwait... search for the term "elective upgrade".   BAN is not describing "bad" parts from non-working items.... they are describing the "BIG SECRET FACTORIES" I showed them film of in 2004.  The ones I took Craig Lorch (who once again appears in an E-Waste Tragedy film) to see in China in person.

Africa's Hackers are Good Guys

Actual studies show conclusively that non-working electronics are frequently more valuable than working electronics.   And they show that buyers with expertise, like Joe Benson, who selectively buy for their own containers, know what they want.   They don't want, and won't accept, and won't pay to export, 80% of the junk at a USA or UK electronics depot.

My 2002 Guidelines were based on interviews of African, Mideastern, Asian and Latino importers.

The people I interview - Hamdy, Wahab, Nyaletey, Aziz, Soulemane, Mariano, Jinex - belong in a remake of 1995's cult movie THE HACKERS.  NOT in a jail cell with beat cops from Holland who can't tell a Trinitron R4 tube from a Jack-o-Lantern.


Their TINKERER voices were sadly drowned out by the remarks of ghoulish witches brew, rice paddy shanty town reuse abuse demonizing extremists.

Even very respected journals, like E-Scrap News, reported the opposite of what was happening at this meeting.   The Amendment to the Basel Convention was NOT voted in at the meeting.  BAN was protesting the Convention, as it is, in the status quo, and asking for Guidelines to define "for repair" as "fully functional".  @Economist, @ScientificAmerican, @BlacksmithInstitute... the best and brightest of journalism fell for the GAZE ON AGBOGBLOSHIE.

We have seen enough of the impacts of electronics re-use abuse already, and yet the problem is increasing daily. Re-use is a worthy aim, but it must be done according to the normally established rules and obligations of the Basel Convention. Just as we require wastes that are to be recycled to be move according to the Basel Convention control procedures, so too should exports for repair and re-use. The solution for preventing the re-use abuse lies in a proper reading of the Basel Convention, its obligations and definitions. All Parties, and in particular those from developing countries, that are now faced with a daily onslaught of junk entering their ports, need to prevent further re-use abuse by sticking to the principle that electronic equipment that is untested or not fully-functional must be considered waste. If it contains hazardous materials it is hazardous waste. No exceptions.
No exceptions.   Kind of like all hackers are hackers, all equally illegal. My importing friends in emerging markets are a lot like the cast of characters in Hackers.   Their crime is curiosity.   If EA and BAN.org have no response to this blog, or the articles it links to, after several years (like 2014) of calling them out, then they should Boot Up or Shut Up.

#FreeJoeBenson  #FreeHurricaneBenson

Still reading?  Go figure.   One year ago, this dense blog got 437 hits:  http://retroworks.blogspot.com/2013/12/dead-reckoning-cross-cultural-risk-part.html

FINALE:  E=Waste Tragedy
photo montage effect ofmanInPrisonBars 270

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