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.

In either case, what prompts the question is the feeling that it seems like "a waste" to throw out fully functional toilets or used car seats.  Environmentalists respond by thinking about an export market as a solution.  But someone then questions the ethics of exporting "second hand" goods.

OMG toilet fallout

I could go on here, but my position is that it would be bad to export the toilets before a sewage treatment plant existed.  We know from our own experience [The Great Stink] that flush toilets without water treatment killed people.  What we don't really know for sure about child car seats is whether there is any evidence that any child has ever been saved by one.  Perhaps drivers with children in the car drive more slowly or more carefully if not given some panacea excuse ("I can drive x% faster because Junior is safe in a car seat").

What's interesting is that you could write several blogs about the ethics of exporting used toilets or child safety seats, and never once touch upon the "eventual waste when eventually an African discards the chair".   The plastic seat may be burned in a fire, someday, the smoke inhaled by brown children.   I have photos (above) of broken flush toilets at the Goma market in Cairo from 2007.

What is really interesting are the positions taken by authorities.   An official in our state government reportedly gave an announcement that I personally was a bad human being because, even if computer displays we exported ten years ago were functional or repaired and reused, that they would eventually wear out someday, and that crushing them and putting them in a USA dump (as "daily wind cover" even) was ethically superior.   Robin was personally poisoning someone in the future with reused monitors.

Wave your arms over your head, and all kind of concerns seem valid.  I've hear other people scoff that African internet cafes would harbor Nigerian email scams, and that destroying a computer was better than letting someone from Boka Haram wind up with it.   Someone once said that even if we crushed the leaded glass and recycled it, that it could be turned into lead bullets that would be fired at American soldiers.  And of course there's the recently uncovered UK House of Commons "Strategic Materials" argument that exporting a working device is bad if someday the wealthy country wants the "strategic scrap metals".

These are really stupid ethics discussions.  Seriously.  Environmental Ethics can and must pick up its game, and not allow just anyone to invoke any liability with no thought, let alone analysis or data, to back the concern up.

These arguments just go to show that some people think that any potential liabilty they can come up with happening someday-maybe is an ethical argument, or makes them some kind of moral authority just for imagining some negative outcome at some point in time.  I don't hesitate as much as I should to call people stupid, but they are often driven by covering their asses (having been disproven for saying that Africans buy stuff in order to immediately give it to orphans to burn it, eventual discard or future wastecrime is the next best thing).  If not CYA for a past false alarm, it can be some selfish motive like protecting their big shredder investment.  But those people probably can't read a blog like this anyway (lost you 5 paragraphs ago).

What we have to do first is "do no harm", stand up to call out agaisnt friendly fire and collateral damage, and first and foremost take out arguments against poor people getting good enough stuff from the secondary markets of wealthy people away from the dog-whistle of environmental racism.

Whatever your point, about toxics or liability or strategic metals or access or reuse or fair trade, don't be a racist about it, ok?  Can we at least not do that?  Whether a black person eventually throws away a brand new computer mined and manufactured in China, or a used computer at 1/10 the cost, has nothing to do with us.

Be true to thine own self, environmentalists.  First do no harm.  Research problems before promoting gadget solutions.

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