Blacksmith Institute Ghana Project: Environmental Injustice or Economics?

Blacksmith Institute's "top ten list" of "most toxic places" put Agbogbloshie, Ghana at the top. (Later it was clarified that it was at the top of the alphabetical list because it began with A).  The Blacksmith press release is now 16 months past.  While I've tried to call Blacksmith out in debate, both with personal calls and emails and with a little blog chiding of Dr. Jack Caravanos' use of disavowed BAN export statistics (bad data), my friends have warned me to be careful.  Blacksmith Institute isn't a Greenpeace or a Basel Action Network.   They'd be a powerful adversary.

Androcles pulling a thorn from the lion's paw
My response has pretty much been that scientific and academic approaches applaud "peer review", it's part of the Scientific Process.  If I've been wrong all this time, I believe in Socratic method, and like Plato said, would be as happy to have a wrong idea removed from my mind as I would to have a thorn removed from my skin.   If I'm making a mistake, I want the mistake to be corrected.

I trust Blacksmith would see it the same way, if they take the time.

This morning I got an email from Rafa at @RecyHub, cc'ing a subset of interested parties like Josh Lepawsky following #Ewastegate, with a link to a public update on the cleaning up of Agbogbloshie project.

It's about AMP Project, the MIT-CoLab style "appropriate technology" approach to wire burning in the Accra city dump, which has provided the update below.
More on the Blacksmith Institute, what do you think?
Link to the project completion report for phase 1 of the pilot project. 
I was trying to figure out who to cc in my response, and decided to post it for the world below.

@RecyHub et. al.

Thanks for sharing.

There's nothing at all wrong with wire stripping tools, they are safer than burning.  As is the alternative of accepting 33% less money for wire which is unstripped (the casing is about 30% of the weight, you lose 3%... varies of course by the grade of wire).   

- unburned wires weigh more.
- burning the casing increases the ratio of copper, and  value per pound
- fewer pounds for higher cost per pound is the economic incentive.

The problem, if you do the math, is that the incentive is pathetic and does little to explain the activity.

I've never thought of wire burning as being so much economically driven by profit.  Rather, it reflects an absence of opportunity.  As a teenager I burned things because I was bored and it was interesting to burn old toys and stuff.  If you distributed firecrackers and cherry bombs to unemployed Agbogbloshie teenagers, they might come up with even more shocking "recycling" techniques.

Flashback:  In the 1970s, when I was volunteering for the Fayetteville Arkansas Recycling Center, Bruce (the hippy guy who ran it) was in tears recalling the morning that he came to work and found broken glass everywhere.  Someone had come in and thrown all the glass bottles against the wall, shattering glass everywhere.  It took him days to clean up, and the glass was contaminated.  He asked "how could someone hate recycling"?  Well it's a small world and a year my close friend admitted to doing it.  We were talking about my volunteering at the Recycling Center, and I told him Bruce's "recycling hater" story.  With a guilty look, he said that... umm.. "that might have been me and Pinky". They were just bored that summer, getting high, came to the place after closing, and started busting bottles. He said he never thought of it as vandalism, and now he felt really bad.  But they were just 15 at the time, just kids.   And I have to admit I did it too, in Fresno, one summer... we went around town on our bikes finding littered glass soda bottles and throwing them as high as we could to see them break in the parking lot.  "Boys will be boys".

Back to Ghana:   If indeed the burning is driven by the 3-10% possibly added income, it could be economically changed simply by setting up a wire buying coop, buying unburned wires at a higher price (which could be resold in bulk for 35% more, covering the overpayment for non-burned wire).   You could break even if you simply paid 10% MORE for unburned wires, and the teenagers would actually be losing money by burning off weight.  It could be a lot simpler fix for the Agbogbloshie wire fires.

That would be the way a business person approached the postulated goal to "eliminate toxic burning while maintaining the boycott of sale of used goods".   But it is the repair and reuse of the used goods which provides the most OPPORTUNITY for employment.   The bandaid covers a boycott which is itself a lost opportunity to use supply and demand in Ghana's favor.

So WR3A originally considered the first "use bulk volume purchase to erase economic incentive for burning", and there's SNEW (run by your Dutch neighbor, Martign, who I add to the cc).   SNEW will take back the scrap unburned at a higher price than burned, and I support Martign's project. Immaculately bringing wires back to Europe to be properly recycled.

However, if the original "cure", the boycott or denial of export opportunity, was falsely created by bogus statistics, which tie burning of goods imported 15 years previously (as noted by Emmanuel Eric Nyaletey, and supported by World Bank documentation of household ownership in Accra), and that new imports are mostly reused (UN studies E-Waste Assessment), then classification of working and repairable devices as "waste" was a mistake which EU refuses to admit was a mistake.  In that case, the more courageous thing, in my opinion, is to champion the majority of Ghana economic interests which are employed in the reuse and refurbishment, and not sacrifice their jobs out of concern for the burning.  Depicting the majority of Africans involved in imports as "recycling savages" was sexy for the Guardian, Independent, BBC and SkyNews.  But it was a pure case of environmental malpractice.

The burning appliances shown in Ghana were not directly imported.

Twenty six percent of Ghana households had televisions 15 years ago

In other words, if you stopped 100% of imports of all new and used electronics to Ghana today, you'd still see a rise in scrap at the Agbogbloshie yard for the next 15 years.  Because African cities are not that different from European and American cities.   They have toilets and electricity and cell phones and traffic jams and auto scrap yards and "e-waste".  The "otherization" of Africans, the marginalization by association of pictures of children and familiar looking scrap, is the crime.

There are still places in the USA (West Texas is notorious) where scrappers burn wires on tires.   What made the activity decline was not "environmental police enforcement", it was economic development which created fewer opportunities to do things that only generate 3% income and are mostly driven by boredom.

I've suffered incredible costs by taking this stand, I had a $2M per year contract taken away from my Vermont company (I had to lay off 17 people), I've been called vicious names (BAN's description of me in the Chicago Patch article on Intercon Solutions, Mama Mia!), and I completely understand why most of the people I meet in this industry will only agree with me in confidence and in secret.  

Blacksmith Institute, unfortunately, seems slow to address its error.  The citation of "vast majority of e-waste being directly dumped" by Dr. Jack Caravanos in the source study references a bogus number, made up by a group which later disavowed the statistic...

It was an innocent mistake (Lepawsky shows many, many peer reviewed studies accepted "80% waste") but they continue to refuse to acknowledge it.   In fact, the statistic was cited as "common knowledge" at Joe Benson's trial, without objection by the public defender.   I still see reruns of 2009 CIS: NY "Green Piece" at night, saying that Chinese workers are paid $8 per day to burn CRT glass for valuable lead (pb).  Everyone fell for it.  I almost fell for it back in 2002 (but I couldn't make the math work).  The "Green Piece" fiction tried to create nuance by saying the environmentalists were also murderers for bombing the home of the recycler, perhaps a thinly veiled stand it for Intercon Solutions (still in a defamation lawsuit with BAN).

Not being published writer (yet) in any peer reviewed journals, I wrote an "Open Letter to Jack Caravanos" last July, and then tried calling Blacksmith Institute in December, later reopening another blog calling out Caravanos inopportune references to disproven (UNEP Studies) data.

It was never 75-80% dumped.  It was 85%-93% reused and repaired.   African cities wanted internet and to watch the World Cup and evening news and Bollywood films.  People were earning $3,000 per year average income, enough for electricity and a gently used display device from Europe.   That's what was seeding all the opportunities Africans enjoy today, the alternatives to bored wire burning.

My hypothesis is that there is a psychological predisposition to trust people who are more familiar looking.  It's innate to distrust people who are unfamiliar.  It's what makes good cops racially profile, and it is not just in whites but in all cultures, and applies to sound (languages) as well as skin color.  I'd even argue that it may actually be better in white cities because they are more integrated, but in Africa there are also powerful economic incentives to overcome it.  That hypothesis has been pretty well researched and proven.  

I approach a lot of "racism" the same way a pitcher would approach a left handed vs. right handed cricket or baseball player.  There may be a tendency to pull the ball left or right.  It's not a "sin" or a "card" to play in an argument.  It's part of Socratic method.

I've shown my London cell phone interview with Joe Benson to many people in Vermont, and am always a little surprised by their reaction.   I approached a foundation for a documentary and showed the footage, and they said they wouldn't want to be associated with anything that showed black people in jail for dumping garbage.   That's what they saw, they heard Benson's version, and assumed he was a polluter.

As an experiment, I'd suggest an experiment where someone who struggles with English (like Joe Benson) is saying the statistics that Jim Puckett says, and someone polished trustworthy environmentalist is making the statements that Benson makes.  Show it to audiences.  Then try the same, where one stat is given by a white environmentalist adult, and the counterpoint by a 4 year old child sitting on a pile of home scrap.

I make this point while realizing how very often "the race card" is overplayed.  In fact, at US EPA the whole export "problem" was turned over the the EPA's Environmental Justice program, based on accepting the argument that the exports were disproportionately waste and that the victims were disproportionately colored (though by no possible measure "minorities").

For me racial awareness tends to be overplayed in comparison to economic incentives and forces, and too much of the focus on racism is actually a misdiagnosis of an economic cause or force.   But where the economics are actually forcing a good activity - recycling and reuse - and the good activity is banned and falsely portrayed, and people refuse to acknowledge the falseness when it's exposed, then the psychology of racism is the next place to look.  And what do you see at  Pictures of children, which is textbook social marginalization.   Children in Agbogbloshie did not pool their money to buy stuff to burn.  It's outrageous that China and Africa have been depicted as "rice paddies" and "shantytowns" in BAN press releases, and the halloween language and ghoulish Pieter Hugo photos are stomach churning.

Robin Ingenthron

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