The Truth About Used Electronics Exports

These shots of CRT Display Imports, taken between 2002-2007, were for reuse.  They were sustainable.  No mining or refining, the carbon and toxics and pollution made them the best way ever that three billion people could get online between 1995 and 2010.

It wasn't perfect of course.  More controversial "gray market" wasn't photo'd.   One Contract manufacturing plant, assembling brand new CRT monitors, also had a used SKD operation on another floor.  They insisted it was a different floor and that a used CRT could never be swapped out with a new one.  But of course that's how the whole sector started, bleeding used ones into new lines in the 1990s until there were actually more used ones than new ones in the early 2000s.  By then, 100% used refurbishing factories were the norm.  

CRT manufacturing for the West was in decline. Fortunately, there was a new "good enough market" where professionally assembled used goods became the most profitable in the sector.

Most of the buyers for these cheap, durable, affordable display devices has been in places like India, Egypt, and Indonesia.  The 3B3K, three billion people earning $3 thousand per year, who were getting telecom and ICT and satellite TV at 10  times the rate of growth of the rest of the world.  CRTs were on fire - in a figurative sense, not a literal one.

While the environmental NGOs were playing games with "percentages" understood by laypeople, some of us were actually travelling around the world documenting the purchase orders and uses of the export market.  The percentages make a lot more sense when you actually know what you are talking about, rather than making things up as you go along.

How do display devices move, geographically, around the world?

In the big geographic picture, here are 5 import-export scenarios:

Import 1. Reuse of secondary CRTs (Tema Port, Ghana)
Import 2. Raw materials for new CRT factories (Videocon, India)
Import 3. Clandestine reuse of 'passable' used CRTs into new CRT assembly lines (China 1990s)
Import 4. Whole 100% semi-knock-down (SKD) reuse factories, often converted from closed #3
Import 5. Import for recycling of junk CRT displays (Calexico, Mexico).
Import 6. Mixed lots of used electronics to be assessed in country or scrapped on receipt

Below is the evolution of the smallest cause - #6 - and how it grew to swallow our attention and become reported in the press as the largest illegal envionmental crime of our time... #ewastegate.

I'm working on the Agbogbloshie Report, and there's a lot of background that I can't really fit into it.  Since I haven't published on the blog in over a week, I thought I'd share some of the edited references which provide some history and perspective to #ewastegate.

People who don't know what they are talking about, making it up as they go along, get much farther if they festoon their reports with imagery of poor children.  It's like UNICEF, except not a penny, not one tiny penny, goes from E-Stewards donors to the poor in the photos.   It's macabre poverty porn, the Charitable Industrial Complex, and the history of the credible, peer reviewed reports which got us here are profiled below, so that we hopefully won't make the same mistakes again.

While I was producing this chart in 2008, I made a serious blunder.  It doesn't have any children's photos.

While all of this was happening, how was the Western Press describing it?

About 10 years ago, Jim P. of BAN and I were each interviewed by Charles Schmidt of NIH , who was doing a report on BAN's 2005 "Digital Dump", the NGO's first major publication since The CRT Glass Test (which I collaborated with BAN on, hoping to show them that people who were exporting CRTs shouldn't be suspected of dumping if they have a high percentage of bad CRT glass.  They obviously aren't breaking the good ones and shipping the bad ones.  It was designed to help BAN around its "murky", suspicious, ghoulish understanding of export markets).

Schmidt's article Unfair Trade e-Waste in Africa was printed in April, 2006, in Environmental Health Perspectives.
The question of who’s selling e-waste to Africa is harder to answer. Used electronics travel murky routes populated by numerous recyclers and brokers working in an unregulated market, devoid of government certification programs. Electronics recyclers are at the top of the supply chain. These companies incur tremendous overhead expenses—to recycle a single monitor in the United States, for instance, can cost up to $15.
Tamale reuse
Well, some of us were trying to get that answer, rather than say it was too difficult to say.   In Africa, we found it was African relatives, friends and associates of the African market.   Interpol's 2009 Report "Electronic Waste and Organized Crime: Assessing the Links" found the same thing, though Interpol's author put a much more sinister spin on the "waste crime". 

When Interpol's young investigator found that Africans pay for the units, pay for the shipping, and pay for the customs, he deduced "payment means organization" and accused the Africans of "organized crime".  Like Jack Caravanos, he accepted the BAN and Greenpeace (see below) allegation of "mostly waste" at the beginning, and then struggled to fit the pieces together.  How could Agbogbloshie in Ghana be the "biggest e-waste dump on earth" if Africans were paying for the worthless junk?   He never answered what the organized crime was, but this report fueled the fire of the PACE and WEEE export "Guidelines" which Joe Benson was accused of violating later.  

Chris Smith of UK's Environmental Agency gave the speech in 2010, with Jim Puckett and Mike Anane at his side, describing the white men with bowler hats externalizing 80% of their electronic waste costs, in Annie Leonard (now chair at Greenpeace) story of "Stuff".

We were all now being interviewed to find how this picture was happening.

How is this Happening!?  What hath we Wrought!?

Asked to explain 75%-80% junk in 2005 to NIH's Charlie Schmidt, I answered the question as best I could, describing a practice I'd seen in China.  China had everything before then - demand for the raw materials, cheap labor, demand for reuse items, and a substitution, or gray market, or "counterfeit" market (the new "gray" term).   Between the value of displays, chips, cartridges, direct reuse, and scrap, it was possible for Chinese buyers to take full loads of computers.  

Anonymously, I answered Schmidt's questions about how the junk could travel to Africa.  I told him it was far less than 75% waste, told him my guess would be 20% waste at most.  But Jim Lynch of Tech Soup had told him how (PCs) a single thousand dollar router could pay for a lot of junk... and in the high tech loads (not displays) that was true.
"Many recyclers run legitimate operations that absorb these costs and profit from refurbished equipment sales and fees charged for accepting old, unsalable material. But others are not so scrupulous. According to one anonymous recycler, it’s not uncommon for companies to coordinate with exporters to ship junk overseas. In some cases, exporters negotiate with buyers in developing countries, who dictate the amount of junk they will accept in exchange for a specified number of high-value items. “I could come up with half a load of good stuff and say, ‘If you want it, you have to take the bad,’ and sell it all by the pound,” the recycler says. “Then the guy in Africa will crunch the numbers and say, ‘OK, if you put a few more Pentium IIIs in there, you’ve got a deal.’"
Admittedly, whether or not I was Schmidt's anonymous recycler, I said it, and if given the same premise as Interpol, Caravanos, GAO, and Schmidt - that 80% of the goods arriving in Accra were waste to be dumped in Agbogbloshie, this is the only possible explanation.   But I never ever saw that happen with TVs, and don't believe it could happen with TVs, or a mixed residential load.  It's just too easy to spot and remove the junk ones.  The most effective "testing" is a combination of visual (tube damage, cosmetic damage) and statistical (which models are in highest demand - because they are easiest to fix).
Tech Wahab translating Western Press @Agbogbloshie

There was simply no evidence that mixed loads of uninspected waste were being purchased by anyone in Africa, ever.  Jim Lynch of TechSoup showed how mathematically it was possible, but the African would have to KNOW there was a $2,000 server blade mixed in the junk.  

We were told of anecdotes.  If "up to" 80% of the imports were waste, as BAN alleged was common practice, how did those nefarious loads get shipped?  Who paid for them?  From Schmidt's NIH report:
In other cases, the recycler adds, the deals are less defined—exporters simply load containers with junk, and sell it by the pound to inexperienced buyers who don’t know to negotiate content from the outset. These cases are rare, however, and buyers stuck with containers full of worthless junk aren’t likely to make the same mistake again, he says.
This would explain an anecdote, not a common practice.
By the same token, says Ingenthron, some inexperienced exporters [sellers] might unwittingly send a Cisco router worth $15,000 in a container load of “mixed electronics.” The WR3A refers to loads like those as “lottery tickets.”
Again, asked to explain a crime, one can imagine it being repeated if the marketplace is stupid.   We'd seen the 'lottery ticket' in Chinese exports, never in Africa.
Ingenthron stresses that not all waste exports are bad. Asian importers, for instance, can sell working cathode ray tubes (CRTs), which contain up to four pounds of lead each, to electronics manufacturers who use them to make new products. Other importers may purchase broken CRT glass to be manufactured into new CRTs. “If you have containers full of cleaned, processed broken CRT glass going to Asian CRT furnaces, that’s good for the environment,” he says. “Otherwise, you have to mine for the metals.”
BAN however got the last say.   Women and children cooking circuit boards on fires.  It's the gut punch, the emotional image that gets everyone a little bit outraged, a little more likely to report "up to" 75% waste as a fact, and to calculate "millions of tons" of waste.   Each reporter gets to muckrake a little harder, trying to change the system and improve the world.

Reuse truck leaving Agbogbloshie April 2005

Note however BAN never claims to have seen that practice in Africa.
Asia does, in fact, have a thriving electronics recovery industry that supplies manufacturers with recycled raw materials. While the practice does have its benefits, as noted above, it also exploits women and child laborers who cook circuit boards, burn cables, and submerge equipment in toxic acids to extract precious metals such as copper. BAN documented these practices, which have dire health and ecological consequences, during its 2002 and 2004 visits to China. However, BAN investigators didn’t witness this type of activity in Nigeria. Puckett speculates this might be because waste volumes there aren’t yet high enough to realize profits from recovery. In that case, he suggests, it could be just a matter of time before the same hazardous e-waste extraction methods observed in China emerge in the Lagos street economy.
Adam Minter, in Junkyard Planet, has since shown a more sophisticated labor market in Asia (which manages shredded units from America as much or more than it manages whole units).  And of course, mining is no stranger to child labor... how the anecdotal percentage of child labor became applied to recycling only/specifically, and not to mining, is thanks to photographers who drank the 80% waste koolaid.  Rafa Font's thesis cited child labor statistics for Agbogbloshie, but the children mining coltan from rain forests aren't as accessible, geographically, or as easy to photograph.
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.
73% between 21-30 years old is young... But so is Africa.  The same statistic would apply to any activity, from bottled water to road paving to ivory poaching.   

The methodology - making up a waste number and asking experts to explain how it could be possible - kept up for years.

The GAO (US General Accounting Office) in 2008 took on the task, and published an influential report.  
"Companies easily circumvent EPA’s CRT rule. Posing as foreign buyers of broken CRTs in Hong Kong, India, Pakistan, and other countries, GAO found 43 U.S. companies that expressed willingness to export such CRTs. Some of the companies, including ones that publicly tout their exemplary environmental practices, were willing to export CRTs in apparent violation of the CRT rule. GAO provided EPA with the names of these companies at EPA’s request. "
I met the young men who wrote the report.  They told me my responses to their undercover work showed mine was "one of the good companies".   I then realized their methodology - asked them - and they confirmed it.  Eartlier that year, GAO had put up fake ad or solicitation, posing as an exported CRT buyer in China.   I had contacted them, bewildered.  I had seen plenty of ads offering to pay $10 each for used CRTs in China - based on no screen burn, no scratches, no monochrome, no dumb terminals (even no Japanese R4 tubes, made by Trinitron, if you were willing to get into the details).   This ad was offering to pay $10 apiece for scrap CRTs, burned, bad, any condition.   GAO had found plenty of companies willing to do that... but there's no evidence the free market ever, ever purchased such a thing.  People were willing to sell banana peels as bananas if you (undercover GAO) were willing to pay them $10 each, but no other ad in any listserve showed anyone remotely willing to pay that.

car scrap obviously generated in Accra

(Unable to get GAO, or StEP, or PACE, or anyone else to listen, I started this blog that year).  

And I continued to research these markets for my second decade, and my expertise continued to evolve - BECAUSE I exported, and because I was an agent of conscience, and I cared what happened.  But at this time more and more American and European firms did the opposite.  Afraid to be seen selling to black and brown and yellow people, they shredded or demanufactured a greater and greater percentage, giving themselves less and less "skin in the game", and less expertise.  It was part of the "cultural lobotomy" of the e-Scrap sector.  If your parents never, ever, ever let you go to a dance with African Americans, it's easier to believe they are 80% gang members.  It is exposure that allows us to distinguish between legitimate 8% problems and hyperbolic 80% problems, and the difference in those diagnoses leads to very different prescriptions for reform.

To the point, the way the bad material has to travel in mixed loads to achieve 75%-80% bad isn't visible in anyone's photos at Tema Port or Lagos.  To find the junk and "guilt-ridden" asset tags, the NGO has to go 2 hours away to Agbogbloshie, weave through a hundred meters of junk automobile and white goods scrap, and take photos of the 20-50 electronics per day the scrappers collect from push cart routes in the teeming city of Accra.

How did it happen?  How did the junk at Agbogbloshie get there?  There's a simpler explanation, and it's right in the original BAN Digital Dump report of 2005, on page 11.  For decades, Africans were importing those as working and repairable items... which were traded in to used markets, or sold as junk 15 years later.

But BAN was making money.  And so in 2008, Jim Puckett's former employer, Greenpeace of Amsterdam (which split off from in the 90s), entered the fray with MORE pics of kids, MORE fire, and some hysterical hyberbole about Agbogbloshie in Accra, Ghana.  The photos were superimposed, bigger and scarier than BAN's 2005 Digital Dump report.  An arms race in the charitable industrial complex was brewing.

Describing Agbogbloshie, Greenpeace stated:
Computers, monitors and TVs are the main e-wastes processed at the scrap yards. At Agbogbloshie, these are manually dismantled at numerous small workshops within the market. Some parts are burned to remove plastics from valuable metals. Materials of no value are dumped along with other waste. Much of the work is carried out by children, some as young as 5, with no protective equipment and using basic tools, or bare hands (see box 1). 
The inset on page long photos boiled it down.   "Greenpeace documented children, mostly boys working in the Agboblogshie scrap market. Most were between the ages of 11-18, but there were some as young as 5. "

Mostly computers (not cars).  Mostly children (not 18-30 year olds).  Mostly bogus.
"Moreover, most appliances that do work on arrival only have a short second life, as they were already old, and / or were damaged during the transit. In the end virtually all used electronics entering Ghana end up in scrap yards potentially exposing workers, children and local residents to a toxic cocktail of hazardous chemicals. "
"Discarded computer and TV monitor casings dumped at the side of the road. Thousand of tonnes of hazardous e-waste is shipped into Ghana every year from the US and the EU, often under the guise of being “reusable second-hand goods”
"The majority of second-hand electrical goods that are imported to Ghana from developed countries are beyond repair and are either dumped or "recycled" in this crude fashion"
From there, it's a short jump to McElvaney, Dannoritzer, Bellini, Fedele, and the other brave photographers who documented a remote wetland on the outskirts of Accra, where millions of tons of electronics are dumped, and burned by orphans who hack the scrap apart with stones.

BAN was finding itself outflanked by Greenpeace.

This was the environment when Greenpeace and UK reporters stuck a tracking device inside a nice looking television delivered to Joe Benson's shoppe in the UK.   BBC Panorama, hosted by Raphael Rowe, would put the nails in Joe Benson's coffin.  In the ultimate of ironies, Raphael Rowe sent an innocent man to jail.

Back to the original import scenarios...

Import 1. Reuse of secondary CRTs (Tema Port, Ghana)
Import 2. Raw materials for new CRT factories (Videocon, India)
Import 3. Clandestine reuse of 'passable' used CRTs into new CRT assembly lines (China 1990s)
Import 4. Whole 100% semi-knock-down (SKD) reuse factories, often converted from closed #3
Import 5. Import for recycling of junk CRT displays (Calexico, Mexico).
Import 6. Mixed lots of used electronics to be assessed in country or scrapped on receipt

All the research has been into "how could #6 account for 80% of all exports".   As reporters and researchers bent over themselves, farther and farther, to explain this "how", Africans have been the victims.  They are accused of dumping (like Joe Benson), they are called "primitive" recyclers.   Meanwhile, most of the growth in African telecom was accomplished, per World Bank, by the critical mass of users who got affordable TVs and cell phones and computers because of these brave, smart, talented people who are bringing The Tinkerer's Blessing to Africa.

Today, displays are still big business.  Even CRT displays.  Although their market share is shrinking quickly, the size of the market - people with electricity who want to watch World Cup and create Facebook
accounts - continues to grow.

Indonesia remains a big CRT market (where Fair Trade Recycling's Net Peripheral made most of its money).  See December 2014

Videocon of India bought the Thompson CRT factory in China and is running it with recycled (Chinese) CRT glass by the way.  

Export market so far has been all about chips, cartridges, and displays.  Scrap value is a byproduct.

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