Q: Are Millions of Tons of Western "e-Waste" Dumped in Agbogblshie, Ghana?


There is more and more "e-waste" in Africa.  But the West (Europe and USA) are exporting fewer and fewer containers of used electronics.   The implication is obvious... used electronics DID work for 5-15 years after they were imported - Africans are finally replacing TVs and computers they imported more than a decade ago.

There is no big story here, other than the fake news was faked and Joe Benson is in jail because of it.

More African city households have had multiple televisions since the 1990s.  But the "sources" for the foreign dumping claim have all dried up.

John Henry:  "Where did that @#$% statistic go?"
Containers of used equipment being imported into Ghana's port (Tema, not Accra) are not going directly to the Agbogbloshie scrap yard. That can be disproved from any editor's desktop, or by looking carefully at photos purporting to show it.

And there is no evidence of widespread violations of international law.  15% waste is the margin of accidental breakage, electrostatic discharge, human error, etc., and it's as likely (or more likely) to come from brand new product lots as from used.

The discussion is not about what happens to used electronic scrap.  This is about is how to feel about people, and how those feelings promote a political agenda with multiple stakeholders, winners and losers.

How to feel about poor people, how to feel about non-profits, how to feel about ourselves when we consume more goods, how to feel about ourselves as do-gooders and non-profit founders..?  That's far more interesting than which type of video display (used CRT or new LCD) an African with $3,000 annual income should invest in.

[Addendum 6/23/2015 - After forced evictions begin, Discard Studies essay by J. Lepawsky and G. Akese explains history and land politics]

The political power is in Europe and the USA.  False news reporting tells those people -who don't know enough about strangers in strange geographies - how 'they' should feel about 'them'. It is "other-ization"... the more strange and exotic the other looks, the more the wealthy person writes rules based on their own liabilities rather than the interest of the person of focus.  And "liability" and "wealthy" is a powerful economic driver.  I've called it the "white juju", because the internal fear of liability is often a matter of belief rather than law.

Witchcraft requires spells, combinations of words.  Using rhetoric, venom, music, and snapshots, people are trying to win an advantage in a multibillion dollar secondary market and scrap trade by creating exaggerated images of liability with little or no basis in fact.

File:Cooking witches.jpgWitches Brew

Often the crusaders come from a good place.  Suspicious of business and profit, they look for "victims".   Investigative journalits aim for the Pulitzer Recipe... 

+ Exotic 
+ Effort 
+ Fear 
+ Liability 
+ Resulting Reform.

Pics of kids at dumps looks like toil and trouble.

If you are looking for the laboratory of the Charitable Industrial Complex, sniff the caldron of Agbogbloshie, a junk yard next to the Old Fadama slum in Ghana's capital, central Accra.

Planned Obsolescence, Flow Control Contracts, Non-Tariff Barriers, Anti Gray Markets, and E-Waste... and take one serving of HR2791, or RERA, the Responsible Electronics Recycling Act.  Championed in a WSJ editorial this week, predicably weeks after Washington Post, Wired News, Fox News and other sources welcomed us to "E-Waste Hell", "Sodom and Gomorrah", the "Tragedy" of a recycling yard in Abose quarter of urban Accra, Ghana.

Despite the fact that every single peer reviewed research paper has obliterated the "A Place Called Away" descriptions of Accra's dump, the Hoax keeps showing up in mainstream press. There are still a number of photo-journalists pitching the hype, or calling Agbogbloshie the "most toxic place on earth".  This is how the Charitable Industrial Complex works.  They sell to our fears, of national security, RCRA liability, and won't-someone-please-think-of-the-black-children?   The big industry which was reformed by muckraking journalism a century ago has learned and adapted, and is now funding it to imprison Nigerian born television repairmen, at British taxpayer's expense.

The prosecution in Benson's case spoke of common knowledge that most of the used televisions and computers and electronics he exported would be roasted by orphans over fires in Agbogbloshie, and the risk seemed great enough to sentence him to 60 months.  His public defender advised him to accept a "lenient" sentence of 16 months.  Because they didn't understand how Africa was achieving the growth in internet access and mass media over the past 20 years.

The chart above is from page 15 of Basel Action Network's 2005 "Digital Dump", which initiated teh "chicken little" fear of dumping liability.   We have data from the World Bank showing double and triple-digit growth in teledensity (internet/TV/mobile) of 153% the year before... 77.8%  the year before that... and 162.5% in 2002.  But the chart is a little blurry.  What is easy to see are pictures of apparently impoverished black people, mysteriously labelled "orphans" or "children" by the NGOs.

But how was the growth in the chart occurring based on the pictures and "data" supplied by BAN?  The sale of new product in Africa cannot explain this growth.  If the imports of second hand goods were being "dumped and burned", how did Africa get online so quickly?

Photo-journalists, unfortunately, skip the data.

Many of these reporters photographers, like Kevin McElvaney, or Fedele, or Bellini, seem pretty young.  I doubt they've got a bad bone in their bodies.  They may be recently graduated (Anon Justin was earning a masters).   No doubt Upton Sinclair, author of "The Jungle", was an influence on their professors, if not on these Agbogbloshie reporters.

Africans fly and import the devices.  "We couldn't find a western exporter to photograph, so we drew one?"

The best short piece I've read on Upton Sinclair is actually in a Cracked article, "Six Books Everyone (Including Your English Teacher) Got Wrong" (By  5,428,340 views)

Upton Sinclair went undercover into the butcher shops and slaughterhouse industry, and wrote about how the horrid conditions in 1906.  The Jungle is considered one of the most influential "muckraking" works in journalism.   When people read about workers losing limbs, or falling into meat grinders (and sold as lard without reporting the accident), it created outrage and lead to Teddy Roosevelt era reforms (1906 Meat Packing Act, Pure Food and Drug Act).  When you visit proponents of RERA (HR 2791), the parallels are pretty clear.
Responsible Electronics Recycling Act - Amends the Solid Waste Disposal Act to: (1) prohibit the export of restricted electronic waste to countries that are not members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) or the European Union (EU), or Liechtenstein; (2) require the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to develop and promulgate procedures for identifying certain electronic equipment as well as additional restricted toxic materials contained in such equipment which poses a potential hazard to human health or the environment; and (3) establish criminal penalties for knowingly exporting restricted electronic waste in violation of this Act. Allows certain exceptions to such export ban.
Fedele, Bellini, Dannoritzer, Pelly, Grossman, etc are authors and journalists who want to report (sell books and films and pictures) on the world recycling industry, like Upton Sinclair.   And the Heavy Equipment based electronics scrap industry ("Big Shred") and Anti-Gray-Market Industries (Planned Obsolescence) can see the upside.  But photographing used goods in Africa that were imported, and used for 5-15 years, and blaming Western Society, "moves the headstones without the graves".  It shifts liability for "dumping" to people who trade with Africans, as if Africa would otherwise have bought brand new devices from Asia which would never, ever fail.

- - -

And here this little blog is playing the same kind of game, in a way, channeling another "activist journalist" Vance Packard (The Waste Makers).
The Waste Makers is a 1960 book on consumerism by Vance Packard. It was bestselling when it was released. The book argues that people in the United States consume a lot more than they should and are harmed by their consumption.
Now it's really interesting how Sinclair's disappointment was that he "aimed for peoples' hearts and hit their stomaches" - his moral outrage over the best interests of the workers was overshadowed by "quality of the stuff" laws.  And Vance Packard's book seems to be slipping off the radar (Middlebury celebrity environmentalist Bill McKibben has written the Introduction for the reissue), in part because the marketing of the "stuff" Packard wrote about seems like such a commodity.  It's hard to get people to truly care about "Stuff" which they have already discarded.  As I've written in "7 Steps to Create a Profitable E-waste Hoax", most of the outrage is from people who were already "activated" to care about recycling.  They thought they already checked off their recycling box and are outraged to be told they were lied to, it was really exported and millions of tons are being burned by 27 orphans with push carts in an inner city slum on the remote outskirts of a wetland...

Like Sinclair, I wish to write about is the people in this story, not the stuff.  Not the toxics, not the products, not the #ewaste, but the people.   And that's going to take a book, not a readable blog.

For today, I just want to point out the journalistic shortcut.  Upton Sinclair went undercover (following in the footsteps of groundbreaking journalist Nelly Bly) and worked for 7 weeks as a meat packer.  He went home and penned what he saw, embellishing with images (see title "The Jungle") that were exotic and halloweeny.  What he was trying to do was bring fear of the work to the reader, to create empathy for the workers who seemed not afraid, and therefore heroic and brave.   He could represent he too had been brave, for 7 weeks, and channel his fear as a newbie to transition the readers to sympathize with the grown urchins.

When it went into lawmaking, product producers quickly got involved to spin their billion dollar sales to competitive advantage.  Things were either cleaned up, better hidden (meat packing industry developed strong rules on photography and reporting) or moved to a geographic externality (like textiles pollution).  In most of those processes, the individual people, the workers Upton Sinclair wished us to empathize with, became anonymous pawns.  Sure, OSHA laws empowered them to a large degree, and TR stopped the union busting, and Upton Sinclair deserves some credit for that.  But the working class hero is still a handle, not a name, in John Lennon's hit, and John Henry.
John Henry is an African-American folk hero and tall tale. He is said to have worked as a "steel-driving man"—a man tasked with hammering a steel drill into rock to make holes for explosives to blast the rock in constructing a railroad tunnel. According to legend, John Henry's prowess as a steel-driver was measured in a race against a steam powered hammer, which he won, only to die in victory with his hammer in his hand as his heart gave out from stress. The story of John Henry is told in a classic folk song, which exists in many versions, and has been the subject of numerous stories, plays, books and novels
The John Henry African American character of the ballad was a hero for his skill hammering metal with his strong arms.   The song was welcomed by a generation of Americans during the overlap between Bly and Sinclair who were mainly doing manual labor.  People like my grandfather, Clarence Fisher in Taney County Missouri, who as a child was sent to cut small 4" cedar trees (illegally?) from the Ozark forests to bind in sets and sell at the roadside as fence posts.  Much like the work Awal, Razak, and Rachid of Agbogbloshie described when we asked about available jobs in their remote home villages near Tamale - such as cutting small trees to be burned into charcoal for sale to stove owners in the city.

But the generational transition of caring is changed because fewer Americans actually weild hammers for a living, even in scrap yards (its unheard of to use unmechanized force in rail or construction).

And in the same way, it's now unheard of for a reporter like Upton Sinclair or Nelly Bly to actually "go undercover" and apply for the job they are describing and live the life they are photographing, even for just 7 weeks.  It's all point and shoot.  Click click, upload.  Fast.

You fly in to Accra Airport, unload your bags at Accra's finest hotel, and reach Agbogbloshie in under 10 kilometers.  You'll never be outside of Vodaphone data signals, you can upload photos (or blogs) from the taxicab.

From Kotoka International Airport to luxurious Movenpick Hotel to Abose (where Agbogbloshie scrap yard is) is 9.7 kilometers, six miles.

The end result is that reporting is super easy to do.  But without living the life undercover, without spending the weeks (I spent 3), without going to the Tema port to watch the unload, without going up to Tamale where the scrap men are emigrating from, you wind up writing a story that piles lavish hyperbole on halloween specter.

Millions of tons per year / 27 orphan urchin boys.

A great example of people who have done it the hard way and spent a long time in the research is Rafa Font (Rafael Fernandez-Font Perez) of Brussels, whose masters thesis "Tools for informal e-waste recyclers in Agbogbloshie, Ghana" was written from the ground up.  The photos aren't exotic, and the words don't punch you in the gut.   And while I don't agree with Rafa 100% of the time, we have enough in common with people in Ghana that there is a lot of traction in the dialogue, a lot of understanding to be gained from each other.

Rafa's descriptions of the "homeless urchins" is a little less exotic.
"Most come from the Northern Region, and arrived there via family contacts. A great majority of the dismantling workers are male (86%). They usually earn more than the official daily minimum wage ($2.15 in 2012, Oteng-Ababio 2012c). The population is mostly young (73% are aged 21-30 according to Caravanos et al. 2011) and child labour is usually reported in the area."
The child labor I witnessed was kids delivering small bags of fresh water for sale, and a rather young looking "apprentice" who was hanging around watching the older kids and waiting for a place to burn wire.  I only saw adults with hammers and tools doing the recycling.   I confess I didn't get all their ages, but they looked like young adults and old adults, and the one which was specifically identified by Bellini as being between 12-18 (Rachid) is in fact 22.

I have to wrap this up and get back to the Report.  But why did I call Abose's Agbogbloshie Market a "hoax"?  Because the people reporting it in Wired, Washington Post, Guardian, BBC, Economist, etc. are guilty of bad journalism, the worst (inaccurate) journalism, and they are receiving Pelly Awards and journalistic accolades for it.   The muckraking is not going to make lives better in Ghana, it is going to be pasteurized into taxpayer subsidized shredding machines which force Africans to use a much higher percentage of their annual incomes to purchase display devices and computers which practically never wind up in Agbogbloshie before 5-15 years of use.

- - - -

Basically this E-waste reporting, through Basel Action Network, Greenpeace, and Pure Earth (Blacksmith Institute) plays up a profitable a hoax, or more charitably a "floating statement", something circulating from photographer to photographer to reporter without any source.
"We would be the first to say that exaggerations have been made on this and many subjects.  And also that Ghana is not the world’s biggest focal point for the e-waste trade.  " - Jim Puckett
He goes on to point the finger at Pure Earth / Blacksmith Institute as the source of the "80% dumping", or "millions of tons" at Agbogbloshie's "ewaste hell".   But he "would be the first"?  Huh. But he wasn't.  He decorated his website with pictures of kids from the claims.  When this blog was protesting the African E-Waste Hoax, this is what Jim penned.
"The Agbogbloshie dump situated on the outskirts of Ghana’s capitol, Accra, is but one of the increasingly common inglorious final resting places for our society’s proudest products.... This material made its arrival on African shores just some days earlier as cargo inside 40-foot intermodal corrugated containers — the shifting bricks of globalized trade turned techno-trash haulers. Around 400 of these, each containing about 600 computers or monitors arrive each month at the Port of Tema, Ghana, from the UK, USA, Canada and countless other rich and developed countries. They may find a quick stay on the floors and shelves of hundreds of second-hand markets throughout Accra. But those that do not sell — about half, even if they work perfectly — are then picked up by small boys pushing heavy carts and hauled several miles to the outskirts of town, to be thrown away — to Agbogbloshie’s scavengers. "
Well its certainly not on the "outskirts" of Accra by any possible geographic estimate, but that is the most accurate statement BAN made on the topic.  It certainly did not arrive in Tema port days earlier.  That is a 100% falsehood, a lie, and no one but Jim Puckett said it.

Like the claim he never, ever said that 80% was dumped (a citation that winds up in CUNY's report, via a Michigan citation of BAN, cited by Blacksmith Institute).

Agbogbloshie [demolished after this writing] was ugly... really frightening if you are not used to being surrounded by black men in dirty clothes (recyclers are more likely to shrug at that than photo-journalists).   About 27 young men are burning tires and wires (mostly wires from automobile harnesses).  Older wire (from cars and buildings as well as toasters) has leaded insulation, and over decades of burning (and exposure to auto batteries etc.) the leaden ash has seriously contaminated the soil and water.   But that doesn't exactly set Agbogbloshie neighborhood apart from wire burning brownfields in USA, Europe, Asia, South America, or other sites in Africa.

Basel Action Network, Greenpeace, and Blacksmith Institute are 3 NGO (non governmental organizations) which I have found direct citations from concerning Agbogbloshie.  Anyone can research the "hoax" can see if one of them will go on record with any percentage or any data, or in any way defend the claim that even 10 tons, let alone a million, were ever "dumped" there.

What is making the NGO's queasy is the money.  The 990 tax forms.  The fact donors and board members can find a blogger, and it's becoming less easy to dismiss me as a nutjob as 4 universities, 2 Basel Secretariat studies, a USITC and EPA report all confirm what I've said since 2001.  Residue from reuse is not "dumping", and only a Planned Obsolescence, Big Shred, NGO Grant, white-guilt conspiracy could concoct a sting on Africans to save Africans from the internet, and pat themselves on the back for it and ask for RERA legislation to make their model into law.

money. money.
 money. money. money. money.

"Non Profit"... yeah right.  $3Million off of this story between 2010-2013.   They are purely about money and it innocent Africans go to jail, they don't want to sign a petition that threatens their money.

Insecurity, greed... they are in the same hypo-campus, same area of the brain.

What has been unwelcome about the ten years of this blog is that I'm pointing the finger at my friends.  I'm an ex regulator, and current died-in-wool environmentalist, and I have been thinking about "saving Africa" since Peace Corps in the 1980s.  I tried bringing this up quietly, internally, before I blogged.  I co-wrote a paper with BAN in 2004 (CRT Glass Test), donated to the CRT glass study 2 years ago, and my company has sponsored college interns from several continents to promote "fair trade recycling" practices and invite NGOs "under the tent".  The California Compromise of 2010 project would have given BAN control of most of the reuse market at that time.

But defaming my friends, or people I don't know personally (Joe Benson) who could well have been my friends, is a step too far.  All right then, said Huck...

Agbogbloshie, the "largest e-waste dump on earth" or "most toxic place on earth" or other hyperbole, is the product of photojournalists who look in the mirror and see Upton Sinclair or Elizabeth "Nelly Bly" Cochrane Seaman.  But they are part of the Charitable Industrial Complex, because they are telling a big lie, on cue, to support legislation aimed at making it harder to reuse and repair devices.  Big Electronics and Big Shred are in lockstep, trying to shorten the life of Stuff, and they've perversely labelled it as responsible recycling.   Their money is now all over E-Stewards and R2 alike.  But the next chapter will be written in China and Africa, and it is short sighted for Americans to shred the secondary value of their own equipment.  

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