Oxbow Incident: Lord Chris Smith, Interpol and BAN vs "Waste Tourists"

We have met the enemy, and he is us. Walt Kelley's Pogo comic was set in the deep south.  Here on the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Summer protests of Mississippi, a 52 year old from Arkansas is working to free Africans wrongfully accused of being "waste tourists" by a well meaning, but culturally tone-deaf, set of environmentalists.

  • David Higgins of Interpol
  • Lord Chris Smith of the UK Environmental Agency
  • Jim Puckett of Basel Action Network

Higgins had assigned a very young Dutch cop, Emile Lindemulder, to set up a task force to make some arrests of people accused of buying toxic e-waste to be burned by children in African city dumps.  This blog shows some of the history, and chronology, which led to the sentencing of Hurricane Joseph Benson in June 2014, and which fuels the momentum of Project Eden...

Project Eden.  Let's return Africa to its innocence, to a time without e-waste.  Here is the chain of events which led to the seizures and arrests and plant closures, stopping people reprocessing CRTs for Africa (Net Peripheral), repairing computers for African internet cafes (MediCom) or selling televisions which 6.9 million Nigerians were using to watch the World Cup in 2006.

Here's how good white people became involved in a modern Oxbow Incident, accidentally profiling the geeks of color I've been fascinated by since I lived in Cameroon, Africa 1984-1986.  The week I left Ngaondal, the first Cameroon television broadcasts in Adamoua Province showed the miniseries of Alex Haley's "Roots".  My landlord showed it in the adjoining house, his livingroom packed, children leaning against the windows outside his house.  He had purchased the first used CRT television in the town of Ngaoundal, a used RCA.

Sometime between December 1986 and now, I'm sure that TV wore out and created the first "e-waste" in my former village.   Some think that makes the person who sold it to my landlord, Sgt Ndjang, somehow guilty of a wastecrime.  As Graham Pickren pointed out in his doctoral thesis, the guilt of the white person who once owned the RCA seems attached, as if a fetish, to the RCA when it is discarded in Africa 15 years later.  What if we sell something to an African which will eventually become waste, VT ANR staff asked my clients?  By that measure, new product is also banned, and Africa will never gain access to the  tree of knowledge, remaining as "Eden" forever.

BAN's Jim Puckett vs. "Hurricane" Joe Benson

Imprisoned based on fake statistic

Thanks to all for the polite applause and pats on the back as I profile the arrest and imprisonment of an African used goods trader from the safety of my Vermont office.

Many people have told me how "brave" I am to risk offending the Senator Joe McCarthy of E-Waste.

" Never has BAN ever stated that 80% of US e-waste is exported." From NPR.org / fair use.   

One year ago, "Hurricane" Joseph Benson of BJ Electronics was involved in our efforts to get Puckett to actively withdraw his accusations against African techs.  I travelled to Interpol, met Benson in London, and engaged with Puckett (via BloombergView) over Basel Action Network's silence about it's "80%" statistic being discredited in major UN funded studies in Nigeria. Jim Puckett tried to spin the story, claiming credit for what he called the vast improvement in standards of imports to Nigeria.

Outrageous.  The study was the same containers seized from Benson's arrest!  Puckett was acknowledging the quality of the studies funded by Basel Convention Secretariat, but implying the quality of the loads was a result of the goods seizure.  Rarely does an expert get caught so bloody red handed.

Unfortunately for Joe Benson, trade of used goods in Africa has already been tried and convicted in the press, based on BAN and Greenpeace's accidental racial profiling of allegedly "primitive" electronics repairers.

Portions of the Hurricane Joe Benson blog, with quotes from Puckett and from the 2011 report on the findings of Benson and others sea containers are reposted below the lyrics of Bob Dylan's song Hurricane.  It includes a link to an academic article reportedly submitted in Benson's trial, from University of Northampton UK, which quotes Puckett estimating only 25% of exports to Nigeria are actually reused...

Recall also, a year ago, that Puckett and BAN refused to come clean about their "statistics" on e-waste.  "Never has BAN ever said..." etc.  Recall as well that Puckett used articles mentioning Joseph Benson of BJ Electronics by name in his powerpoint presentations, taking credit for the crackdown.

Bottom line:  Africa has enough REAL problems, needing real solutions.  They don't need us to manufacture scandals for them.  (See another old blog chestnut, "The finite world", riffing on Economist Paul Krugman).

"Hurricane" Rubin Carter, memorialized in Bob Dylan's song, passed away two months ago, April 20, by the way.

My point is that I told Jim Puckett, to his face at E-Scrap in the fall, that his stats about Africa were resulting in an Innocent Man's arrest and imprisonment.  Jim Puckett said to me that Joe Benson was "collateral damage".  That's the best he could do.   And now Benson is in prison.

Rubin Carter was falsely tried
The crime was murder 'one' guess who testified
Bello and Bradley and they both baldly lied
And the newspapers they all went along for the ride
How can the life of such a man
Be in the palm of some fool's hand ? 
To see him obviously framed
Couldn't help but make me feel ashamed to live in a land 
Where justice is a game.


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.

#freehurricanebenson

Breaking News! UK Sentences Nigerian-born Exporter to Prison!

After a cacophony of alarm bells in 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2009, Basel Action Network and Greenpeace have finally achieved what they wanted.

A TV repair man is going to jail for buying something reuseable which someone else wanted, who could not otherwise afford new.

Hoax 1, Africa 0
There has been one environmental activist who has been trying to keep "illegal exports of e-waste" in the news.  They earn money by certifying Recyclers don't illegally export.  But they've rarely been able to show enforcement, and bemoan our inattention to "ewaste exports".

Yesterday they got their Big News.  OMG.  An African is finally going to UK jail for "e-waste" wastecrime.

Joseph "Joe" Benson (black) of BJ Electronics was accused by Cahal Milmo (white) of #wastecrime. Lord Chris Smith, the UK's Environmental Director, vowed to stop England's illegal dumping on the shores of Nigeria and Ghana.  And they put a TV repairman, with about 90% working product, in prison to make him an example to others willing to trade or donate used goods to Africa.

After 4 years and untold dollars, Joseph Benson said uncle.  He will start a sentence of 16 months.

Who is "Joe Benson"?  In February, this blog was the main source of information about the trial and appeals of "Hurricane" Joseph Benson of BK Electronics.   Benson, a Nigerian-born television repairman, was profiled by UK journalist Cahal Milmo as an "e-waste exporter".  In a sting set up by Greenpeace, covered The Independent's Cahal Milmo, BBC, and The Guardian newspaper, Benson's crew reportedly accepted a sabotaged CRT television in 2010.

Just learned that Benson sentence was reduced from 24 to 16 months in prison today.

So who pointed the finger at Joe Benson?   It started in 2005, with the publication by Basel Action Network of its paper, "The Digital Dump:  Exporting Reuse and Abuse to Africa".   BBC covered the paper in 2006.
In customs documents, the computers are described as being "shipped for re-use."
But Jim Puckett of environmental NGO the Basel Action Network says that in practice, dubious exporters exploit the re-use category to increases their profits and offload their environmental responsibilities. 
"Unscrupulous exporters from the North are intentionally mixing bad with good so that they are able to avoid disposal costs," he says. 
"Usually when you bring a computer to a recycler, you pay a fee. But brokers will take this fee, and instead of recycling will mix in some good equipment and trade it... exporters say it is working equipment to help the poor to bridge the digital divide, but what we've observed is not bridging the digital divide but the creation of a digital dump." 
In fact, it is several dumps, spread around the city. Lagos has no computer recycling facilities itself, and so the waste computers build up in huge piles.
On these dumps children scavenge for the contents - they can earn around US $2 a day by collecting components - but are also putting their health seriously at risk.

"Speculative Accumulation" of CRT Glass: Symptom or Cure?

I went into two hospitals.   One hospital was full of patients who might die.  A group was protesting on the sidewalk.  Any patient's death could be - potentially - malpractice!

The other "hospital" was not, technically, a hospital so-to-speak.  It was a cemetery.  They killed and buried every patient.  They explained they were avoiding any speculation.  

This is the argument today about a recyclable commodity, CRT (cathode ray tube) glass.  Somehow or other the idea is getting out there that "speculation" of CRT glass that might get dumped rather than recycled is so rampant that "landfilling" is the solution.   ADC (alternative daily cover, or layering CRT glass in a landfill) is a "final solution", and trumps CRT "recycling" because it happens in less than 365 days.

Basel Action Network, which receives payola from shredding companies for their "E-Steward" certification, is busy waving the warning flag about the dangers of "speculative" accumulation, or possible future landfilling of CRT glass.  Piles of CRT glass in warehouses or in mining territory have been there for more than EPA's 365 days, BAN warns.   The risk behind of "speculative accumulation" is that you begin to doubt whether the glass at the recycler might wind up at the dump.

Lauren Roman of Transparent Planet (a former BAN staffer) is circulating a petition to get EPA to "enforce" against speculative accumulation.  It is true that the CRT glass in certain piles has not been recycled yet, and therefore true it may wind up at the dump.  The solution?  End "speculation" by dumping it.   Kill the patient and put our minds at ease.

Will any of the piles at recycling plants wind up needing to be disposed?  Possibly.  That's what the "speculative accumulation" rules mean.  If you are granted a "recycling exemption" to not be considered a "waste", you have an egg timer on it.  365 Days.

So some states (including Vermont) are buying into the argument that landfilling, if done in the right order, is preferable to recycling on the 366th day.   Broken pieces of CRTs, applied as as wind cover at the end of the day, are somehow "safer" than the intact pieces covered over at the beginning of the day?  Because after 366 days, maybe the CRT glass at the recycler will - gasp - be landfilled.

"Dump the glass now, the suspense is killing us!"

Some of the patients being treated at some of the hospitals will wind up in the cemetery.  How exactly does that make the cemetery preferable to the hospital?  It's such incredibly bad logic that it gags the mind.

Hurry and dump the CRT glass, before the recycling market has a chance to save it.

Once Upon a Time in the North: Certification = Barrier to Entry?

Quicksilver X Man Duct Tape, for all your needs
After two decades of study of the recycling and reuse of electronics, it is increasingly clear that "barrier to entry" and monopolization of services is the biggest economic driver.

The USA Supreme Court is considering an important case this summer, to consider whether licensing rules are truly established to reduce risks, or whether (nudge nudge) they are simply anticompetitive.

GPS' Fareed Zakaria program spotlighted the challenge to Federal Trade Commission's successful defense of public mall "teeth whitening" services, which were banned as "unlicensed dentistry" by NC's State Board of Dental Examiners.   The Board of DE's, staffed completely by dentists, ruled that you have to have a dentist license to practice teeth whitening.

Why we should care about teeth whitening - Zakaria Blog

Environmental Morality Debate: ADC is Landfilling. Exporting is Dumping. You're Throwing Away. Garbage!

1980s Moral/Environmental Superiority

"You threw your television away??  I reused it.  I sold mine at a yard sale, or donated it to a charity.

Yours went into a landfill where it will be blown in the wind and seep into the groundwater!"

1990s Moral/Environmental Superiority

"You threw your television and computer away??  I reused my computer, and the television was recycled back into a new television, the plastic, metal and glass reused.

Yours went into a landfill where it will be blown in the wind and seep into the groundwater!"

2000s Moral/Environmental Superiority 

"You threw your TV, PC and cell phone away??  I reused my cell phone.   The TV and computer were recycled back into new metals, plastic and glass products.

Yours went into a landfill where it will be blown in the wind and seep into the groundwater!  Or worse, got shipped to a country with poor people."

2010's  Moral/Environmental Superiority  

"You threw your TV, PC and cell phone away??  I sent mine to a shredding machine.   The metal and some of the plastic were recycled back into new metals and plastics.

The leaded glass from mine went on top of yours, as wind cover.  Like yours, it will be blown by the wind and seep into groundwater.

But mine will be on a layer on top of yours today.  Tomorrow, when the landfill reopens, another CRT will be dumped on top of my "yester-daily cover".  And another layer of shedded CRTs will be placed on that.  And so on..."

Environmental Moral superiority just ain't what it used to be.

In certified programs, almost nothing gets reused anymore.

This is "moral relativism" not across geographic boundaries, but across decades and their relative economies.

What does this "moral environmentalist standards evolution" tell us about Environmentalism?  Harken back to the Priestatollah Blog ("E-Waste Whiplash").  Beware moral fetishes attached to scientific environmental problems.   Environmental health studies, like human health and medicine, need to stay firmly in the science camp, and let's keep our ears, eyes, and minds open to scientific method, healthy reasoning.

6 Pieces of Dad Advice for College/University Applicants

Three cheers for college applications.  My wife and I are parents of college-bound twins.  We want them to graduate debt free.  We believe college is a really good investment (my spouse is a prof at a selective college).  But if education cannot be provided without crippling compound interest, it can be DIY (do it yourself).   My great grandfather became an expert in Roman history, among other things, by reading books.

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Our twins will be in good colleges for under $10K next year (including living expenses, on average).  They ate almost that much at home, so the effective cost is better yet.  They could work side jobs and earn their way out if they have to.

If I'd been debt free from my own two degrees, and I could have been saving money for my own kids college.  But I'm from the class of 1984.


- President Ronald Reagan turned the Pell Grants into Pell Loans
- Inflation fell to 4%
- Colleges continued to increase tuition by 10-16% per year (!)


My generation was told that debt was rational.  That the interest rates were "lower than inflation" and that that was somehow an equivalent of earning money.  The result was the first generation to think you could actually make a living off of inflation in the housing market... which led to the 2008 mortgage crisis.

As many in my liberal arts college railed against Reagan and the Pell Grant cuts, I could see that we were just drinking straws, from the federal cup into the colleges' mouths.  As long as the government kept filling the punch bowl based on "need" - set by what the colleges charged - it was clear the colleges had little incentive to stop raising fees.

So no big tuition savings for our kids.   Instead, they get plenty of advice.

My parents and grandparents advice, as I recall, was all about money more than love, spirit and friendship... at least that's what if felt like listening to their advice, as an 18 year old.  What I now know is that loved ones will someday call needing help, and you'll wish you had savings.   If you can't help them and wish you could, it's usually due to past decisions about compound interest.

If our kids are the products of our marriage, this is about product stewardship.

6 Pieces of  Fatherly Advice About College