2017 Theme: Questions From Grad and Undergrad Students

Here's an idea for 2017.  Through the FairTradeRecycling.org web address, we receive research questions and internship applications from undergraduate and grad students around the globe.  This year, I'm going to publish some of those questions, with my answers (or external experts) in the blog. I'll be the Dear Abby or Miss Manners of E-Waste.

If you have a research question about recycling or waste or export for repair, send it here.

It reminds me of my Carleton College (MN) internship at the United Nations in Geneva in 1983.  I was a long-haired activist and agent of conscience who was promoting the 1970s "Nestle Boycott" over infant formula sales [NYT 1981].  I'd circulated a petition at the college to keep Nestle brand candy bars out of Carleton vending machines, etc.  In Geneva, I had the chance to meet with the head of INFORM the Boycott NGO, with the US representative of the WHO, and the Vice President of Nestle, Geoffrey Foochs.  A lot of what I learned that summer put a permanent spin on my career.  A lot of that summer appears in this blog.

The misuse and aggressive marketing of infant formula was indeed a horrible period.  I won't go into the pictures of malnourished babies, contaminated water, "samples" which lasted long enough for a mother's breasts to dry out (leaving her bound to the bottle)... this was clearly a heroic battle in the early 1970s.  But in 1983, there was as clearly an "industry" around the "boycott" and the main product being traded was ego gratification among long haired liberal arts students.

A year later I was teaching in Adamawa Province in Cameroon and I brought in Nestle powdered milk for a lesson.  I'd drawn a nice cartoon of a mother breast feeding and asked the class which was better.

A slight majority raised their hands and said the powdered milk was better.  All boys.

Then something rare occurred - the few young women in the class were adamant.  Standing.  Raising their voices and pointing their fingers menacingly at the ceiling, as if testifying before God.

No, they cried.  Breast is best!  All of the girls knew better, and were - uncharacteristically - LOUD about it!

It turned out that many of the boys knew it too, and said afterwards that they had assumed that because I was white, and that infant formula was white people food sold by white countries (and some even knew it was controversial), that the answer I wanted to hear was that powder was best.

- The people (young women) who know most about infants knew already
- Several boys who raised their hands were telling me what they thought I wanted to hear.
- Africans were in the process of filtering the same "modern" marketing that we filtered in USA in decades past (with no external "Action Group" to save us)

Those three things apply to the e-waste export saga.  The tech sector in Africa manages 100% of the purchases, all the money, and knows exactly what the cost of testing a product is, and what the probability of the product not being repairable is.  And the Africans tend to try to politely nod to the NGOs who are "saving" them from the trade, and can be less direct than they should be in calling out NGO bullhockey.

The Nestle Boycott was declared at end by the USA group (INFORM? or INFACT? I can't remember).  But the marketplace for white saviors and liberal causes is still alive.  While powdered milk is now sold in cans without images of babies in Africa, and I haven't seen evidence that the problem continues.  But there's an NGO for That:  Baby Milk Action (UK) which is still in the business of targeting Nestle.  I don't claim to know anything about the Baby Milk Action Network or to be up to date on the "crisis", but I'll bet it's run by 50 somethings who are trying to Make Africa Suck Again (vs. #theAfricaTheMediaNeverShowsYou which, for the most part, makes intelligent consumer decisions about used electronics and infant rearing).

The Watchdog Action Networks do serve a role.  But they will never find "acceptable" de minimus quantity.  Like a sci fi Robot they will keep firing at infant formula and e-waste sales because they are single-issue NGOs.  They aren't diversified.  They will keep piling up collateral damage (like Joe "Hurricane" Benson) because they have painted themselves into a corner.  Like a buggy whip maker or Kodak Film salesman, they have been made irrelevant by educated African women of child bearing age, and by Africa's Tech Sector.

The computer buyers of Africa are who I write about today.  They buy TVs taken out of hotels all at once (when they are replaced by flat screens).  That should have been obvious to Greenpeace when they filmed the sea container being unloaded in Accra - all uniform size and brand?  What "e-waste" externalization does that resemble?

The buyers send buyers who know what to look for in brands that are not likely repairable, the look for problems (screen burn, other screen damage) which is not economical to fix. They do the math and ask for somethings to be tested working.  Other things they actually prefer to get as cheaply as possible, because they know that statistically 90% of them are "elective upgrade" by the wealthy (replaced because the price of nicer new ones came down), and that statistically 9% of the remaining are easily repaired.

They know that if they buy the product as "certified tested working"

a) they will pay 30% more for the same outcome
b) they will probably not even have been tested, because the seller knows the same thing

That represents inefficient use of money by people who don't have much of that to waste.  If someone had tried to "save" my hillbilly grandparents from buying and repairing used tractors and cars, and they spent their money on "new", perhaps I'd never have gone to college and Big Shred and Planned Obsolescence would be funding Action Networks with no referee to answer Progressive Questions.

African Technicians aren't eager to buy my Samsung Note 4 with the stuck "SAFE MODE" volume button issue because fixing the hardware requires the (working) screen to be removed.  The screen is very likely to break in the process (the way it was glued).  They will take it, but the price reflects a real risk that the screens are tricky.  They do want Samsung Note 5, and will pay more for one (even if the screen is damaged) because the screen is more easily repairable.


If you are writing a research paper today, my advice is that if you see a bunch of 50 year old white people posing as experts, and don't see any actual people from the countries engaged in the trade, you will find serious research gaps.  Like "where is the water sample UPSTREAM in Guiyu, showing that the toxic pollution found in the 2002 river sample came from e-waste?"  Action Network failed to do that, and so never mentioned the tanneries and upriver pollution sources in Guiyu.  That led to the SAME mistake being replicated in Agbogbloshie studies, even though numerous published reports decades earlier HAD tested the Odaw River upstream, and HAD documented that not much of the pollution occurs at Agbogbloshie.  That research (which would also have shown that flooding wasn't caused by Agbogbloshie recycling) might have spared thousands of people from being evicted from their homes in Old Fadama in 2015, the last time I was there.  (I'm returning in 2 weeks).

The Tech Sector Africans are grown ups.  Like 16 year old gals in my African High School class, they are not dumb about the stuff they know and trade in.

And that his how the psychology of this business became so interesting to me.  The white savior.  The savvy tech (or infant) expert.  The parroted opinion - cultural - to tell authorities (like Peace Corps teachers - or NGO filmmakers) what you think they want to hear.

There was a lot of misinformation about the sale of infant formula that led to a lot of harm.

What the irony today is, is that repair and reuse and recycling is the natural thing.  That is the breast milk.  Big Shred solutions and bans in Europe are today's "Infant Formula" sold to Africans by White Experts who claim to have the health of Africans in mind.

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