UNU Gets Closer To Ewaste Truth (B-): But it is LEGAL not ILLEGAL

I T    I S   L E G A L

See video of African Reuse

The "fine print" behind in the UNEP / UNU headline.  75% of the imported used electronics work, and are preferred by African consumers because they perform better than affordable new ones. Of the 25% that require repair, Nigeria's Tech Sector is the best on earth at repairing them. 

First the Good News about United Nations University's "Person in the Port Project" (2018).  "Assessing Import of Used Electrical and Electronic Equipment Into Nigeria"...

  1. The 2018 PiP report avoids the pitfall of poverty porn  photos (its 2015 report was cringeworthy)
  2. The report correctly describes the use of otherwise "unused space" in automobiles (West Africa's #1 used goods import) to move laptops, computers, and other household electronics (and clothes, and jacuzzis, etc).
  3. They involved 2 African authors, Olusegun Odeyingbo (UNU), and Dr. Innocent Nnorom, BCCC Africa (along with Dr. Olmar Desozer of UNU - ViE SCYCLE)
For a really excellent description of what "drives" the export trade, see section 5.8.1 Economic Relevance of UEEE Trade, Refurbishment and Recycling (complete quote at bottom, in blue).
"The high skill level of Nigeria’s refurbishing sector, with the ability to fix many technical defects in UEEE at reasonable service cost, also motivates importers to import both functioning and non-functioning electronic equipment to Nigeria." 
Well done.

The problem is in the press release, and the headline.  They claim something that is rational and environmentally sound is nevertheless illegal.  And the press release (apparently written by a freaked out white Starbucks barista) calls for law enforcement... without quoting or interviewing the black people who loaded and unloaded the containers.

Africans are in control of this whole trade.  This report does a lot to document that, reversing the narrative that unethical OECD sham recyclers are responsible.

So it doesn't get an "F".  It correctly describes the loading and unloading, and the financial transactions.  Better dressed, better facts, and with credible African co-authors.  But where is the crime?  Where is the waste dumping?

Recalling Booker T. Washington - the report reads like a compromise.  It describes the good outcomes in Africa, but still extends a sturdy olive branch to the WEEE policy hawks who constantly impugn trade with geeks of color in rapidly emerging markets like Nigeria.  A sturdy branch for the European E-Wastes lynch mob, who continue hunting down African technicians.

To me, the photos, charts, and data look - ordinary.  Below are a couple I took just a month before I saw the report, at a USA African-run pack-and-ship terminal in the New York City Area.

We agree on what it looks like.  A lot like the inside of a moving van.  Here is a shot I took of a container being loaded for Africa.

The UNU report uses ordinary photos of ordinary stuff which ordinary African businesspeople purchase solely for the ordinary purpose of reuse and repair.  Yes, African movers use empty space in cars efficiently. The PiP report then correctly describes how each container is negotiated in a controlled customs zone, with declarations and inspections.  The authors speculate whether the declarations are as accurate compared to customs documents at ports in China, Europe, South America, etc.  But it is a far cry from the claims made ten years ago, that the sea containers go directly to "rice paddies" and "shantytowns" without control.

Chart after chart after chart describes the export/import.  And to repeat, to their credit, there are no emotion-button photos of kids at the dumps standing on computer monitors (which had been imported 20 years earlier).

They almost have it.  Then, as if they anticipated the question... "So what...?"

... They invoke the spectre of crime.

The automobiles and mixed loads are made to sound suspicious.  But that's what people do in the shipping business - efficiently maximize space in sea containers.  Hardly worth an extension of the constantly-funded UNU E-waste research budget...   Uh-oh.  Here it comes.

Earning an F on "Basel Convention"

The report concedes these are imports by Africans, who generate profits from reuse and repair.  The goods are not "waste" products shipped by the "driver" of "avoiding disposal fees".  Annie Leonard can keep her drawings of shammy fat white guys in capitalist top hats.

But DING, that false note.  "Nevertheless, under the provisions of the Basel Convention, the export to and import of nonfunctional [Untested Electric and Electronic Equipment] into Nigeria are illegal."

NO.  Sorry.  Check the Convention. Exporting them for the purpose of dumping and burning is illegal (the original 2007 claim).  Export of non-functional electronic devices for the purpose of repair is not only NOT ILLEGAL, there is special language stating, unequivocably, that it is LEGAL UNDER THE BASEL CONVENTION ANNEX IX, B1110.  And nothing says otherwise!

The bottom line is that the report describes the nitty gritty of how containers are loaded and unloaded in Nigeria, but doesn't provide any control group.  For example, they need to compare the disclosure of used goods to the disclosure and reporting of brand new goods, otherwise the nit-picking looks like nit-picking (or more likely, CYA, given the UNU's past reports that this is worth reporting).

What I saw is the same as in Angola, Burkina Faso, Cameroon... and Los Angeles, Le Havre, Valencia.  These are glorified moving vans, and there is nothing I see "exotic" in the customs.  Which if you think about it... makes sense because each container started in a "rich" country.  And yes, there is a cat-and-mouse game with customs officials. But that is true of bags of rice, and brand new Chinese smart phones.  It is not about electronics recycling or reuse.

As we did in the 2015 report, "UNU Earns F on E-Waste" lets see what information that is staring the author of the press release in the face, and ask why they are calling the cops on African Techs.

Here is excellent section of the 2018 UNU PiP Report- I'd give it an A+.  This isn't false claims or poverty porn, and the report concedes that Africans are behaving rationally.  This is why the Basel Convention made this explicitly LEGAL.

[See copied text at bottom]

This blog has chronicled false claims by NGOs that the goods were NOT being repaired, that sea containers were being unloaded and burned directly at the dump, that 80-90% of the goods were never reused.  We showed that was economically impossible, we complained that no one was interviewing the Africans and Asians who purchase and import, and we complained about the use of "poverty porn" photos intended to stir shame, guilt, and liability.  We identified that the true interest of the UK House of Commons was to retain "strategic metals", and that they knew years ago that 80% of the goods were fully functional.  This PiP Report makes great progress.

But there's that false claim about international law.

"Good bagel. Too bad bagels are against international law".  N'importe quoi, donc!

Here is the text of the Basel Convention, from the chapter on clearly legal exports.
"B1110 Electrical and electronic assemblies:
• Electronic assemblies consisting only of metals or alloys
• Waste electrical and electronic assemblies or scrap(13) (including printed circuit boards) not containing components such as accumulators and other batteries included on list A, mercury-switches, glass from cathode-ray tubes and other activated glass and PCB-capacitors, or not contaminated with Annex I constituents (e.g., cadmium, mercury, lead, polychlorinated biphenyl) or from which these have been removed, to an extent that they do not possess any of the characteristics contained in Annex III (note the related entry on list A A1180)
Electrical and electronic assemblies (including printed circuit boards, electronic components and wires) destined for direct reuse,(14) and not for recycling or final disposal(15) 
14. Reuse can include repair, refurbishment or upgrading, but not major reassembly.
15. In some countries these materials destined for direct re-use are not considered wastes."

It was because of the original false claims that most exports were NOT intended for reuse (80-90% dumped, per Basel Action Network) that UK, Germany, and Nigeria created separate domestic laws to COUNTER the Basel Convention's express legality.  EU nations individually tweaked the convention, to require exports be "fully functional".  Basel Action Network tried to have the whole Basel Convention AMENDED and called Annex IX, B1110 a "loophole".  (Numerous reporters keep falling for the sleight that two national laws, together, make "international law". NO).

So Africans are taking stuff that works, or that they can fix, and are putting it into personal vehicles whose space is otherwise wasted.  I have been biting my tongue about this for over a decade, not wanting to send the white savior complex riddled policy people in that direction. But now that they have found it, so the heck what?

Boring Loading Zone

Having done all this important work, why would the UNU still choose to depict ordinary, honest, talented Africans in the Tech Sector as criminals?  Why continue to beat this dead horse?  Is there a Monica Lewinsky dress at the end of this research?  Cause I don't see any white-water crime.

Perhaps they need to find a crime to fund their next research study. Because if this is just a case of ordinary people doing what people in the Ozarks, Appalachia, and Eastern Europe did - purchase cars and appliance from rich cities and fix them - then there doesn't appear to be any emergency.  The StEP, the UNU, etc. could go the way of Project Eden.  Nothing to see here. Move along.

There are plenty of real environmental crimes going on.  We don't need to make up fake ones.

Europe continues to impugn Joe "Hurricane" Benson, the Nigerian TV repairman who lost his entire modest fortune, and went to jail, based on local national laws passed based on fake and false testimony (that most of the exports are for the purpose of scrap burning and avoided cost "drivers").

The false and defamatory description of Basle Convention is another case of criminal negligence.  We cannot stand by while these people generate official looking reports that impugn Africa's Tech Sector. While this report has made great strides, it still falsely claims criminal intent.

This PiP report names the Basel Convention 3 times, yet fails to reference the chapter or citation they claim is being violated.  The only mention of non-functional electronics exported for the purpose of repair is Annex IX, B1110, on the list of LEGAL activities.

They report concedes that the imports of electronics in cars are not dumped.  They don't go to Agbogbloshie.  It isn't shipped by white "sham" recyclers.  But they hold onto a last thread or rope for the hanging - that repair is a significant violation of INTERNATIONAL LAW.

That is a 100% false statement.

Perhaps each time they are funded to research Africa, they come back with a need for a continuing problem.  Perhaps, to keep the white guilt money flowing.  If so, they cast aside the reputations and livelihoods of the Tech Sector who fly to USA and EU and Asia to load and pack these containers.  They continue to promote a false and defamatory stigma about the Tech Sector.

Non-functioning items imported solely for the intent of reuse and repair are legal.  If there is too high a percentage of low-value electronics, that is always the result of "war on drugs" approaches. When too many Good recyclers are afraid to sell to Africans, the quality goes down.

Why is the headline always about crime when it comes to business done by black people?

In a nutshell, the UNU researchers are looking more closely and seeing what Africa's Tech Sector is doing.  They are seeing that the "ewaste hoax" statistics of a decade ago were wrong.  But by incorrectly citing "international law" (Basel Convention) they appear unwilling to concede that this is normal, like moving vans and Salvation Army trucks and parts returns and warranty repairs around the globe.

Again, let me leave with a compliment to the report.  Section 5.8.1 is excellent.  What it does is make exactly the case made by the authors of the Basel Convention, in drafting Annex IX, B1110, which makes this legal.  It's a false choice that these people have to be arrested, and that these legitimate, logical, and rational decisions to import used goods for repair needs more enforcment.

See Marvel Comics Villain Problem. UNU is having trouble adjusting back to the small screen.

"The relatively high poverty level in many parts of Nigeria has left many Nigerians with no other choice than to utilise used electrical electronic equipment and be involved in their trade to meet some of their basic income needs for sustenance. UEEE from the EU and the USA is perceived as being of good quality and, depending on the brands, is attractive. Besides limited purchasing power, Nigerians may prefer buying UEEE rather than new products due to frequent power cuts and irregularities in the public power grid, which stress or even destroy electrical and electronic equipment. 

"These conditions create a market that favours cheap UEEE over new equipment, and create a market for UEEE that attracts UEEE imports, capitalizing on the higher reuse value of UEEE in Nigeria compared to the recycling value in some of the countries of origin. 

"The high skill level of Nigeria’s refurbishing sector, with the ability to fix many technical defects in UEEE at reasonable service cost, also motivates importers to import both functioning and non-functioning electronic equipment to Nigeria. Many imported UEEE are sold to buyers in non-tested condition, and they often cannot test them before buying. It is a transaction based on lower prices for such untested equipment, good luck, and trial and error. If a buyer is lucky, the UEEE will function from the outset. The high competence of the refurbishing sector motivates many buyers to engage in such transactions. A very high percentage of non-functioning imported UEEE are fixed successfully according to a report by Odeyingbo (2011). Imported UEEE is also sold to shop owners or distributors who then possibly repair non-functioning devices before they sell it at higher prices, compared to non-tested UEEE. 

"The cost of repairing the same equipment in, for example the UK or Germany, is far higher compared to the cost in Nigeria. Labour work charges in Germany are paid per hour, and the hourly rates are high when compared to the cost of new UEEE and to total repair cost in Nigeria. Spare parts from used equipment may not be available in Germany, so replacement parts must often be sourced as new components, if they are available at all. Often the high cost of buying these parts from manufacturers, as well as repair costs, drives consumers to buy new instead of repairing old products. Meanwhile repairers in Nigeria have access to spare parts from nonfunctional UEEEs. These factors altogether make it economical and thus attractive to repair UEEE in Nigeria when compared to the situation in Germany or other richer countries."

For this section alone, the report deserves to be read. If not but for the false claims of illegality, it would be a pretty good report, indeed.

Presumption of innocence. It's a thing.

Fine Print: 75% works perfectly, 25% is probably legally repaired.  

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