Poison Apples Blog: 18 Questions for Research on GPS Tracking of E-Waste

Poison Apples Blog #1 - Labor Day Weekend 2018

It's September, the beginning of a new Academic Year.  Environmental studies and public policy and geography and business majors are arriving on campus, ready to launch hundreds of term papers, thesis, class essays, etc. on lots of topics.

Usually, there are dozens of students researching the topics of the Basel Convention, EPA policy, exports, and externalization of pollution.  And there are quite a few papers that will be written on racial profiling, and environmental justice.

So far, I haven't seen many papers on the thesis that Geeks of Color, the Tech Sector in emerging markets, is being improperly profiled as "primitive", "informal", and "illegal". But if I were to write such a paper, for an A+, I might begin with another paper that had been published that reached a conclusion in its title...

"How does e-waste travel across the world after disposal?" was a hot publication in 2016, and was covered on PBS national evening news broadcast before many of us had a chance to peer-review it. The title of the report asks a question... and has a cover photo at top which clearly shows the plastic casings of CRT televisions.  This raised a question to me... why was there not even a single CRT television tracked among the sample of 205 devices, which MIT's partner claims are a representative sample of "ewaste".

The 30% or so of "stuff" in e-waste collections that does indeed "travel across the world" is the only stuff they tracked. But the paper claims to answers the question "How" without asking the question, "Why"?  And the answer to why would come from the buyers, the black, brown, Asian, African, Latino and Islanders who are never offered a chance to show what they CAN do with your "elective upgraded" so-called "waste"...

Because the NGO knows this, they had to take an extra step. No one is selling spoiled apples in the marketplace, if they tracked the spoiled ones, it would show little export. But if they tracked the statistically good ones, they'd likely find their GPS in a reuse shop (in fact, they did despite efforts to sabotage).

The method, I call "poisoning the Apples"... And its time some people publish some term papers on the obvious errors in scientific method that should have been vetted before PBS was sent the paper.

"MIT SenseableCity Lab was justifiably proud of the GPS technology - but its silence on criticism of methodology (sampling bias) was cringeworthy"

So as a new semester begins, a new batch of college and university students will be out researching the controversy over #Ewaste.  Three new documentaries have been released over the summer on Agbogbloshie alone. And pumped by press coverage of their 2016 GPS Tracking Device study (MIT SenseAble City Lab's "Monitour" report), Basel Action Network has announced #EarthTrack commercialized tracking, where they will help you "poison the Apples" for your competition... for Cash$$$.

Below [in blue], is a brief history of the controversial study. MIT SenseAble City Lab collaborated with Basel Action Network, perhaps, without doing a background check.  As I was blogging and doing peer research on the report, I was suddenly directed to speak only to MIT's Legal Office, rather than the professor Carlo Ratti or the MIT Ethics Ombuds Office , as I requested.

MIT continued to be cited in press releases and new reports by Basel Action Network. MIT wrote me that they only vouch for the tracking technology, not for BAN's conclusions or sampling methodology.  But, if there has been any pushback by MIT internal ethics review to BAN's wrapping MIT's flag around their allegations, it's been private, even when BAN attacked Dell and Goodwill Industries in a subsequent report.

The method? BAN gets a device from a BigShred donor, say a good, repairable, Apple LCD monitor. BAN removes the screws in back of the monitor, snips the wires, and tapes in a GPS tracking device. Then, BAN carefully reassembles the monitor, so that the "unwitting and unwilling" test subject (e.g. Goodwill Industries) can't see the sabotage. Goodwill sends the "poisoned Apple" to Dell's recycling partner, who sells or donates it in a lot for a remanufacturing buyer, public school, internet cafe... we don't know WHO buys the computer monitor. But the GPS tells us it is in a "non-OECD country", which BAN implies, means it's polluting and bad. When it's tracked to a bunch of skyscrapers in Hong Kong's New Territories, BAN's report mentions "rice paddies", even though Hong Kong's per capita income is higher than the USA's.

So the "Poison Apple" is hidden. If the NGO placed the GPS in a computer that was obviously busted and unrepairable, they seem to realize they wouldn't get as many exports... a "waste of GPS trackers" according to BAN Executive Director, Jim Puckett. What the study cannot tell us, however, is whether the "cut wires" are replaced by the disgruntled buyer, and therefore whether the device reused anyway.

Over the summer, I have received several contacts from "unwitting and unwilling subjects" in other countries, expressing distress over being tracked by BAN's Geographic Positioning System (GPS), alleging they are trading in "e-waste".  They ask me how they were selected by BAN to receive rigged or fake goods. In the past, it may have been random. But now BAN is offering to perform the "hit" on behalf of a "sponsor", through #EarthEye. If you have a competitor vying for your recycling clients, they can pay BAN to slip you a Mickey.

Basel Action Network announced the results of the 2016 Tracking Study as a contradiction of multiple other studies (e.g. by Reed Miller, Eric Williams, Ramzy Kahhat, Josh Lepawsky, Jenna Burrell, Nabil Nasr, Robert T. Lund, etc) which gave a very different portrayal of "e-waste dumping" in poor countries. BAN's hyperbole serves an important role in generating European research funding, which we maintain influences other studies, like those from United Nations University. UNU's "ewaste generation" for example uses ownership and projects generation... but "elective upgrade" differs by income and cost of repair/maintenance. The charts tend to say "its a growing emergency, keep funding us".

We have been asked for advice by people who understand that elective upgrade is an opportunity for 2 people, and not necessarily "waste generation".  Use scientific method. Look for research. BAN will accuse you of exporting in your self interest. But ask the press to look at BAN's self-interest, and what will be the end effect of their Boycott of the Poor?  Because for all the millions BAN and E-Stewards have raised, I don't see a dollar going to the children whose photos festoon their pages like the body of Morgan Freeman in Clint Eastwood's "Revisionist Western" blockbuster Unforgiven.

"Do you know the name Joe Benson?"
Speaking of unforgiven, since I'm writing for university and college term paper researchers, I'll give a little history and background in blue below (if you already know this, jump down to the regular text). And if you don't know, and need a link to any of the claims below, either contact me, or go to the university library and check out a copy of Reassembling Rubbish by Dr. Josh Lepawsky, or RIT's Institute of Technology Center for Remanufacturing, or search the names of the other researchers above. Or if it's about MIT SenseAble City Lab and Basel Action Network's GPS, use the search box above [https://retroworks.blogspot.com/search?q=MIT+Monitour+Basel] as I think I'm the only one writing about them so far (makes a great academic resource since I provide the data and links but am not actually considered a publication, go ahead and use it).

After the brief history of Basel Action Network's situation leading up to the GPS study, I've suggested 18 Research Questions, any one of which might lead to an exciting academic research topic, and a Grade A paper in "Collateral Damage", "Charity Industrial Complex", "International Racial Profiling", "Environmental Malpractice", "Friendly Fire", or a review of one of the Agbogbloshie documentaries on Youtube. On your marks, get set, GO.

- context of BAN's Monitor "release" -

The year before BAN launched it's Monitour Project, in fact, we posted research of the imports to what Basel Action Network advertised as "the biggest e-waste dump on earth".  The depictions of Agbogbloshie by Jim Puckett were so awful and onerous - "thousands of orphans" "pawing" "primitive" "skeletal" "shantytown" "Sodom and Gomorrah" - that they launched an army of poorly informed photojournalists to take pictures. But they also resulted in a study by the Basel Convention Secretariat (SBC) of actual imports to Ghana and Nigeria... which found NOT that 80% of the electronics imported were dumped waste.  Even if "repair" is counted as "waste" (which it certainly is not), SBC researchers found only 15% of what Ghana imported to be dumped. One of the most read blogs of all time, BAN Spins, showed Jim Puckett trying to wiggle out of his claims (which as a reminder he made specifically about Agbogbloshie under his own name in A Place Called Away).

So what was Basel Action Network to do, with their credibility on the line? If 80% of the world's "ewaste" is NOT being dumped on beaches overseas, and the photographs and documentaries of children show domestic African and Asian generation of electronics (over 50% of Africans owned a CRT television 2 decades ago, what kind of waste do we THINK those billion people generate? Coconut husks? Banana peels? #racialprofiling much?).

Basel Action Network's IRS 990s showed that public donations were plummeting, and almost all of the organization's funding by 2014 came from BigShred - the mechanized (labor saving) scrap recyclers who don't like to compete with the value added by reuse and repair markets.  BigShred had over-built based on BAN's press hyperbole. The UK House Of Commons released a paper in 2011 - the same year Joseph "Hurricane" Benson was sentenced for allegedly sending 80% "waste" televisions to Ghana and Nigeria - saying that (again, if you count "repair" and "remanufacturing" as "waste treatment") less than 20% of the exports were dumped. But the House of Commons was concerned about its biggest BigShred corporation - SWEEEP - not getting "strategic metals" as a result of the reuse market. The contractor for SWEEEP was recently cited for dumping CRT glass that had been run through a shredder, research Garrison vs. Closed Loop and find the largest source of toxic glass in the pile came from - you guessed it - BAN E-Stewards #BigShred who ran SWEEEP.

So, for good or bad, MIT and BAN's GPS research has been available for 2 years, and BAN has decided to "commercialize" it.  I'm inviting people to research the methodology of what BAN is doing, because I'm getting cries for help from recycling entrepreneurs around the globe who are afraid of becoming the next Joe "Hurricane" Benson. In the past few weeks I've been contacted by Canada, Bosnia, Australia "alleged exporters" asking how to respond to these trackers, which Dell is now paying Basel Action Network to place in used computers #PlannedObsolescence.

First, here are some questions for researchers to ask about the BAN study and it's methodology. If you can find the answers on your own, all the better, I don't want to be the only source (because BAN is trying to poison the well on me, as well as poison the Apples they provide reuse markets).

1) Is the research funded by an interested party?

Take the example of MIT's How Does E-Waste Travel Across the World After Disposal"

According to MIT's Ombudsman Association's Code of Ethics" this is supposed to be vetted before research even begins, let alone goes for publication.

1.1- Does Basel Action Network have an interest in showing a high correlation of "disposed" "waste" overseas? #charitableindustrialcomplex
1.2- Do ESteward companies who pay for a "reputation" building certification by BAN have a financial interest in disputing the studies that say most exports are reused?
1.3- Did Carlo Ratti have any personal incentive to jump to "conclusions" whether the electronics that travelled (no one disputes the GPS technology) were in fact "waste" or "disposed"? Did he ask before appearing on national PBS broadcasts?
1.4- Do new funders of BAN's #EarthTrack have any incentive to discredit the secondary (reuse) market? Why is Dell the first company to pay BAN to continue it? #PlannedObsolescence

2) Does the published report above cite the statistics BAN says the conclusions are rebutting? 

I thought course 101 at MIT was to provide data, or at least citations to research, which you claim to rebut (or at least Jim Puckett of BAN claimed repeatedly were rebutted by this study). Again, do some research on the professors names at top. Reed Miller was AT MIT when his paper was published (predicting, as I recall, that around 5% of USA's discarded electronic waste was exported without inspection or treatment... but I already have my degree, so you have to look it up).

2.1- Why isn't Reed Miller's work at MIT cited in the MoniTour
2.X - Why wasn't SBC, Memorial U, ASU, Pontifica Catholica Univ Peru, RIT, etc etc.?
...2.100-  Exports of Scrap Electronics - Situations, Principles, and Standards (Robin Ingenthron) Ok, that was a draft, but it appeared the same year that Jim Puckett released the most-cited work on E-waste, his Guiyu-paper "Exporting Harm" is cited and linked to. That's my point here, Monitour skipped the part where you provide alternative hypothesis and documents disputing your headline of "waste" and "disposal".

3) Does the study randomly select devices to track?

3.1 What is the most common device, the most weight in municipal ewaste recycling, the most expensive to recycle (the theory being "export for cost avoidance")? Old televisions (CRT and projection screen)?
3.2 Of the 205 tracking devices placed by Monitour and BAN, how many old TVs were tracked?

Zero? If you decide not to sample any African Americans, it's amazing how many blue-eyed NBA players there are.  How can BAN claim 30% of e-waste is exported if they avoid tracking 60% of the ewaste?

4) Does the research track unwitting and unwilling subjects?

5) Does the study randomly distribute the targeted samples? (see below)

6) Does the study place a representative sample of types of devices tracked at each location they deposit to?  Or do they place things more likely to be exported at specific places that don't pay them to certify compliance, or godforbid, criticize them and their methods?

7) Were some subjects of the research - ones who paid the researcher (see #1) informed the study was taking place in advance of and during the study? Who provided the electronics?

8) Is sabotaging a device the way you track the percentage of junk devices exported? If 95% of a type of Apple device is working or repairable, and you open one and cut wires, aren't you essentially poisoning the apple and then accusing the cafeteria of selling poisoned apples?

9) Do you show all of the overseas importers and interview them, or do you select the one that looks worst and then show it to PBS as representative?  #freehurricanebenson

10) Did you check to see whether the allegedly "waste" devices you cut wires on were re-wired and repaired at the destinations?  

11) Did you check the allegation that the device was illegal to import?

11.1)- Did you investigate and report on BAN's dispute with Hong Kong Environmental Department over the classification of printers, which Hong Kong does not classify as "chemical" or "hazardous" waste, but can be treated as scrap metal there?
11.2)- Is there a correlation between the type of e-waste Hong Kong considers legal scrap, and the type of electronic device you found imported most frequently to Hong Kong?

12) Did you racially profile or cause stereotypes to be used in discussing places like Hong Kong and Pakistan? #collateral damage

13) Did you have your report peer reviewed prior to publication?

14) Did you / your Board consider whether your report was potentially defamatory or a violation of the US False Claims Act before publishing it?

15) Was the material waste?
16) Did you disclose or make obvious that it was waste?
17) Was it "disposed", or are you assuming that determination based on a simple exchange of goods?

18) In the rare event that all the above fail to meet research standards, did your research even remotely seem unbiased? 

Let's just hypothetically research whether every one of the 13 questions above does fails MIT's Ombudsman's test, and one of the Unwitting and Unwilling Test Subjects sends you a letter and asks to speak to the class involved at MIT to ask these questions, do you bury the letter and avoid the subject?

Well, not only did BAN not cite Ingenthron's paper or numerous other articles questioning BAN's methodology and conclusions (and triggering Jim Puckett's bizarre attempt to say "he never ever said 80% was exported" c.f Basel Action Network Explains the 80%, or 90%, 75%, or 50% "Data")...

BAN did not even disclose in their follow up report that I was writing about MIT research when they named - Me personally - My company in Middlebury, Vermont - My client, a non-profit in Somerville MA - and the printer / copier reuse specialist in Chicago area we shipped to (oh yeah, I'm named prominently, but didn't actually even export the printer).

I will postulate that I was unwilling and unwitting, but also that BAN in naming me personally never actually said I exported the device they tracked (a printer that I showed MIT sells used for $349 on ebay - that is WASTE and DISPOSED?).

In any case, no one could be more unwilling and unwitting than the non-profit in Somerville, which unlike the supposedly random distribution at public drop off points (see below) was, according to the report, selected BECAUSE their website identified a recycler in Vermont as their service provider.

Jim acknowledged that I was the only recycler in Vermont, but the problem was, Earthworm Recycling (the non-profit) doesn't have a public drop off. So an MIT undergraduate had to carry the "poison apple" printer into the non-profit's office at 335 Medford Street.

If MIT's undergrad selected a valuable printer, was told by Basel Action Network where to deliver it, had to ring a doorbell and go up stairs or through an elevator and bring it to an office, not a public drop off, they probably broke the law.  This was not a public place, this is a textbook case of unwitting, unwilling test subject being outed. More here.

If anyone at MIT is doing a paper or research on this topic, I'd suggest a "Revisionist Western History" on the export of used electronics, and the Tech Sector ("Geeks of Color") in emerging markets, would be an excellent topic to collaborate on.  I have nothing against Carlo Ratti, I'm not going to sue anyone, and can sign that if MIT says it's off topic.  I can introduce you to importers and exporters who have been impugned, tracked, and profiled.  Those people provided the affordable devices which World Bank realized, in 2002 (what an interesting year), supported the "critical mass of users" which was necessary for investment in internet cables, satellites, cell phone towers, etc, without which your international friends at MIT might never have become your roommate.

They aren't "informal", they aren't "primitive", they aren't dystopia. Our friends do not live in "Sodom and Gomorrah", "e-waste hell", or "the largest ewaste dump on earth". They aren't children. You cannot embarrass us from working with them.  If you sabotage an Apple computer, to trick them into buying it, you are the villain, Cruella.  Time to do some research and set the record straight.

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