E-Waste Tolstoy Syndrome: Best Answered by Africa Tweet?

Like the time limits in High School Debate tournaments, Twitter forces us to present a central thesis in a concise way.

This blog has been criticized for being "wordy" or "nerdy" and has certainly often been repetitive.  My "spaghetti on the wall" approach did work, however.  We only needed a small number of the posts to be read by an influential and respected group of journalists, academics, and regulators.

While Basel Action Network is still in the business of demonstrating its "Ayatollah of E-Waste" powers in the state of Washington, bringing its might to bear against Total Reclaim, the "export virgin" it heralded as a model for a decade, they have been completely ineffective at intimidating me.  That's because I'm using scientific method, logic, and transparency.

While I had hoped to quickly turn around a Ghana Fair Trade Recycling report after my visit there 2 years ago, the issuance of the UNEP study and other studies and reports, and the June forced evictions at Old Fadama ("Sodom and Gomorrah") slum beside Agbogbloshie, made for TMI - too much information.

Several drafts in, I pinpointed what was missing from most of the aforementioned studies and all of the "largest e-waste dump in the world" mainstream reporting.  Baseline data.  If there were 0 containers per month of e-waste imported to Agbogbloshie, rather than 400-500 sea container loads as alleged, how much scrap would be found at the site based on normal Accra city generation?

Accra's TV stations and internet access and cell phone use - teledensity - was measured by several World Bank and IMF funded reports in the 1990s and early 2000s.  IMF needed this data to underpin some multi-million dollar electric grid loans, and they provided a good measure to predict what Ghana's own "e-waste" generation would be decades later.

If the waste observed at Agbogbloshie was domestically generated rather than illegally dumped, one would expect to see a much smaller number of units, and dozens rather than thousands of scrap workers.  One would expect to see pickup trucks and hand carts delivering the waste devices, rather than sea containers.  One would expect to become rather familiar with most of the workers there rather quickly.

And that's what we found.  If anything, there isn't nearly enough waste electronics at Agbogbloshie to account for the devices in use 20 years ago.  That's probably due to long repair and reuse cycles, and the same reluctance to dispose of an item that was observed in Massachusetts households in 1999.

There is no smoking gun, only smoking tires.  The air quality in central Accra (where Agbogbloshie is) is really terrible.  But if you want to save Accra, you need to address a simpler dilemma than e-waste.

As the traffic jams and multitude of tire patching shops suggest, Accra has a lot of automobiles and a lot of auto waste.  The river quality problems in the Odaw aren't caused by "e-waste", the river is completely and utterly polluted by stormwater runoff far upstream of the Korle Lagoon (Agbogbloshie).  Green antifreeze runs in city gutters.

And tires are a major issue.  The young men burn them at Agbogbloshie, sometimes adding copper wire to add value to the blaze.  It does not take many tire fires to ruin the urban air.  Yet, if the young men stop burning the tires, the tires harbor pools of raindrops which become breeding grounds for mosquitos, which bear malaria, which kills children.

At the IERC in Salzburg, I saw a lot of deference to Jim Puckett and Basel Action Network, and several of the EU WEEE crowd remarked that without him there would be no conference, no grants, no e-waste research, no certifications.  The group gave him an award in 2013, the year Joe "Hurricane" Benson was sentenced.

Without him, we would not be here.  I would not have readers studying this blog.

Without him, The Guardian and BBC and SkyNews and others would have no gotcha headlines telling Europeans that their appliances and devices hadn't really been recycled, but had been dumped at yards full of thousands of orphans "pawing" through the waste.

Without him, Ghana EPA might have been working on a solution to tire piles and stormwater runoff.

The self interest, self-congratulation, self aggrandizement of our environmental movement has never stunk quite so badly.  The "closing one eye" on Joseph Benson and BJ Electronics has perpetuated the collateral damage.

We didn't exactly give smallpox bearing blankets to the Africans, but we did mount an all out defamation campaign on their geeks of color, the best and brightest and most honest people I have met in Africa.  They add more value through repair than any other industry in Africa.  Certainly more than mining or forestry or wood carving or tourism, and certainly at less cost than prostitution, gun running, drugs, and worse.

Europe chose to place its grants and its bets on an e-waste hoax, and chooses now to ignore the mistake, to correct it on the bottom of page 2.  And Seattle regulators pride themselves on being more Europe-like in their interpretation of the Basel Convention.

Which isn't anything that Jim Puckett says it is.

This report will finally be released, I promise.  It's already over 100 pages, and my job is to cut it to 15-20.  Because the dirty little secret is that e-waste in Africa really is a little problem, not a big one.  And if you are doing an e-waste research project for college or university, and go to the World Bank data on electronics per household, and on Odaw River pollution, etc., you will find that the people who posted pictures of black kids at dumps never sent a bloody penny to those kids or their families, they kept it all to themselves.

Because of my work revealing this, Germany is finally making amends and giving Ghana a multi-million dollar investment grant to properly recycle e-waste in Accra.  That might be great.  But it shouldn't be the moral of the story.  It's a cover up, not for the illegal dumping that Kevin McElvaney said he exposed, but of the decade of false statements produced for little more effect than keeping repairmen like Benson from competing with shredders like SWEEEP. The "circular economy" revolves around Europe, Copernicus and Gallileo be damned.

Ghana will probably find that just like mining investments, the German e-waste plant will require the clean scrap to be sent to Europe, not to Dowa in Japan. It was always about the metals, and nothing but the metals, and the pollution from recycling is far less than the pollution from mining for EU interests which Europe never talks about.  Read the Strategic Metals House of Commons report from the same year Joe Benson was being tried.

Yeah, I'm being repetitive.  Yeah, I'm being "negative".  Yeah, I'm the least popular guy at StEP and PACE and UNEP and Interpol and Europe's WEEE Directive.  But young college students who are looking at careers in your industry are reading this and becoming better future regulators and future leaders because of what this old unpopular fart is writing.

In his essay (1897) "What Is Art?", Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy wrote:
"I know that most men—not only those considered clever, but even those who are very clever, and capable of understanding most difficult scientific, mathematical, or philosophic problems—can very seldom discern even the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as to oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions they have formed, perhaps with much difficulty—conclusions of which they are proud, which they have taught to others, and on which they have built their lives."
Tolstoy Syndrome is a nickname for "confirmation bias". The way humans make friends, in "play theory", is to find points of agreement and things in common with each other. This is the opposite of scientific method, or deduction, which is the search for truth by elimination of false hypothesis. That tension probably explains a lot of biased or fake news predisposition on FB.

I'm blessedly married to a European, my daughter is a student at Uppsala, and I have many friends there.  Some of the most intellectually stimulating involvement I've seen on this topic is with pals in the EU.  Europe has a very special and complex relationship with Africa, which I saw first hand when I lived in Cameroon, Zaire, and my stays in Ghana and Egypt.  It is because I trust Europe to self-critique that I can be "negative".  Socrates was sentenced to death, but won in the end.  Gallileo was imprisoned,  but is more famous today than Pope Urban who sentenced him.

This is a dirty little insignificant blog.  It's easier to read the tweets.

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