Science Reporting Confirms What We've Been Saying #Agbogbloshie

A month after I left Ghana and said goodbye to our friends at Chendiba and Agbogbloshie, a science journalist, Jon Spaull, visited the site.  In addition to taking photographs, he actually did some background research.  The result is a nuanced article that sees a city - Accra - through the eyes of grown ups.  [one note, I'm in touch with Ibrahim, I don't think he's 14]

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World’s biggest e-dump, or vital supplies for Ghana?

By Jon Spaull


Welcome to hell”, “The world’s largest e-waste dump” “Inside the hellscape where our computers go to die” — these are all headlines about the Agbogbloshie waste dump in Accra in Ghana.

When I visited the unregulated dump in July, I expected to see mountains of computers and TVs stretching into the distance. The reality was rather different.

Compared with other dumps I have seen in Brazil and the Philippines, Agbogbloshie is not particularly large. And instead of masses of people scavenging across mounds of waste, it appeared to be more like a well-organised scrapyard.


The media have falsely labelled the Agbogbloshie site as the world’s biggest e-waste dump

I discovered no more electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) waste, or e-waste, among the vehicles and other scrap metal than you might expect for a dump in a city of more than two million people, with a growing middle class.

Workers at the site were clearly used to photographers. D. K. Osseo-Asare, colead of a project called AMP that supports Agbogbloshie’s recyclers, told me that many photographers arrive as if going on safari, hoping to capture images of squalor. I wasn’t the only one to notice the discrepancy between what I found and the media portrayal of the site as a magnet for the world’s e-waste. I did, however, see recyclers, mostly boys, extracting metals from e-waste without any form of protection against the toxins this work released.

Spiral Economy Trumps Circular Economy: Part 3 "Doing a Good One for the Red Man"

In northwest Arkansas, forensics, speech and debate was a way to get out of town, visit other cities and states, and compete with really smart people (often) in dialectic, rhetoric, and drama.

One of my favorite one-act plays then was Mark Medoff's 1969 "Doing a Good One for the Red Man: A Red Farce". I watched it performed with success by Fayetteville High School '78 Seniors Bill Owens and Michael Rudko... two intellectual giants of FHS.

The one-act play shows the interaction of a dirt poor native American selling stuff to white American tourists, who stop and seek to feel good about themselves for offering to buy things.  Medoff captured the conceit... the liberal do-gooder, a white guy who feels very confident in his role as "savior", is confronted with "white privilege".

After rereading it, the play didn't really age that well.  The tourist is more Archie Bunker, less liberal than I recalled.  But lines like "we've been wearing African and Indian shirts to parties for almost a month now" was fresh stuff.

Criticism isn't attack.  In order to win, we must improve our game, including the one called "circular economy".  We must demand our fellow do-gooders work as hard as if they were making O-rings for the space shuttle.  And just as NASA studies the psychology of astronauts in the isolation of space, we must constantly check the self interests of any constituency our causes attract.

Hastily constructed "cures" for the environment, like Product Stewardship laws, and prescriptions for circular economics, are designed by good-hearted people.  No offense that social engineering can create a viper pit of unintended consequences.

Many African High Schools today still struggle under the leaky roofs I taught lessons under (Cameroon, 1984-86).  But the Arkansas high school I practiced drama for is not as far away from a school in Africa.   Yesterday, via Facebook, two photo posts from two schools (screenshots below), LITERALLY back to back, update me on a school from home, and one from West Africa.

So Western Schools still have drama classes, and African schools still struggle to provide enough desks.  But the latter problem is in part driven by rapid urbanization and increasing access to schools, even as the population of schoolkids increases.

Before a satellite circles the globe, there's homework.   It's necessary to know the weather forecast for a satellite launch.  And if we are to engineer a circular economy, it's necessary to get recycling, mining, and waste cycles straight.  We need to know how pollution got where it is.  

Those who drink the "80% of used goods exports are pollution exported as a ruse of reuse" kool-aid, and design a system around that, wind up responsible for Joe Benson and the destruction of the dream of Africans with mutual funds.  They followed a guy who does not know what he is talking about, and was making it up as he went along.  Sorry if they don't want to throw away all this hard work to save the world and start over... but one's ego isn't the end product.

- - -

Agbogbloshie's number one import isn't waste.  It's photojournalists.   And photojournalists who fly in and exploit the hard working, sometimes destitute, scrappers, can't be allowed to fly home and claim they saved someone.   Their reckless reporting put TV repairman Joe Benson in prison, they led to the seizure of hundreds of thousands of dollars of working second-hand computers of Hamdy in Egypt, they led to the closure of Net Peripheral (the Peace Corps volunteer's 'wet dream' of sustainability, income, and internet), and loss of contracts by Good Point Recycling.

In theory, I'm pro circular-economy.  But this "circular economy" is being promoted by the same WEEE Policy job-hoarding bureaucrats, the same donation-photo-gimmick NGOs, and the same "strategic metals" and "big shred" and "planned obsolescence" capitalist interests as brought us the great #ewastehoax of 2002-2012 (the year the studies all started coming in, backing what my export pals taught me a decade earlier... that there is no money in "waste" migration, only in added value.

Sworn testimony by big metal shredding companies to US Congress...

Sworn testimony to UK House of Commons

No one ever gets testimony from the Geeks of Color.
No one interviews the Agbogbloshie scrapper.
No one finds the parent of the child posed on McElvaney's cruddy monitor.
No one asks anything, no one checks the facts.

I took a call from Awal an hour ago.  I can't always take his calls, we really don't understand each other much.  He was trying to find out when Wahab, the Chendiba Technician buyer, was coming back to Agbogbloshie.  I wasn't sure, think Wahab's in Accra now, but he may have skipped a trip to the scrapyard and gone straight to Tamale.   Wahab and the Techs in Tamale don't really have much to do with scrappers, but Wahab understands the scheme of Fair Trade Recycling, where if the Techs take the scrappers under their wing, more white people may be willing to sell to them instead of boycotting them.

Awal laughed when I told him about the "America Lion" which came to my office a day before... a very large bobcat came to inspect our office in Middlebury, confronting its own reflection in our building's office window.  It's all the buzz on Facebook today (30k+ views).  Employees at Good Point, students at CES de Ngaoundal, we are all connected.  Without the trade - and images are currency - we are engaged in, we would not be.

Doing a Good One for the Red Man was written in 1969, when Medoff was on faculty at University of New Mexico.  It was a product of 1960s liberalism, which showed a self awareness of the cultural gulf between do good trophy hunters, gatherers of mementos, and "spiritual materialism".

At times, there's a competition of vantage points and depth perspectives.  And that's my blog... I'm trying to defend people who are being treated like pawns, but I'm also aware that from another vantage point, I could be exploiting people in another way.  The photo with my student Nana was posed, after all... I wasn't as self-aware of the "currency" of cultural exoticism, though I was clearly aware of the value of photographing my class.  We don't want so much self doubt and growling at the mirror that the next generation gives up, parties hearty, and casts the whole thing aside with trollish conservatism.


Desert Toilet Seat and Car Safety Seat Environmental Export Ethics

In the late 1980s, when I was working for a recycling non-profit in Boston, I took a call from a concerned MIT physical plant employee.  The university was doing a good one by replacing several hundred white old-school toilets, replacing them with a water-conservation type of toilet.

It seemed like such a waste, the person said, to throw these in a dumpster bound for a landfill or incinerator.  Did we think there was someplace to take them as a donation?

Used toilets sold in Goma Market (Sahara Desert)
I was recently back from 30 months in Africa.  While in central Cameroon, I'd helped organize a project to dig a hole for a school outhouse (students and teachers, at the time, had to hike off into the weeds of the savanna).  But there was no prospect for running water, and perhaps more importantly, what would the ethics be for donating a water-hungry potty to a country which had serious drinking water issues?  I've posted before about the analogy of flush toilets to high tech, and the thousands of deaths from contaminated water in London and Baltimore ("the Great Stink") when flush-potties put the "toshers" out of business.

We've also considered the ethics of used child car seats, and the "planned obsolescence" vs. "child safety recalls" of that market.  Having recently been back to Africa, I can tell you that car accidents are common, and child safety seats are unheard of.   Donating recalled child safety seats to Africa seems like it might "prime the pump" for local demand.   But when I suggested it, a Vermont housewife said I would be killing African children by giving them sub-standard, recalled, used child safety seats.

My children came to Africa with me, and sat in the back with 2 adults, and no car seats.