10 Years Of Good Point Recycling Blogs: What's Been Learned?

Ten years ago, most of the mainstream press in Europe and the USA had accepted the cartoon thesis that if electronic waste is expensive to recycle, that shipments of used electronics to Asia, Africa and South America were to avoid those expenses. At least, 80% of the time.

We took that on here, before anyone else would touch the controversy with a 10 meter pole. Here's a retrospective on what was, and still is, relevant in the Good Point Recycling Blog.

When poor people are paying for something (including transportation), it is not "because" the rich are willing to ship it.

We demonstrated that with the "Big Secret Factories" and 60 Wasted Minutes blogs. The sea containers of CRT monitors headed for Asia were never, ever full of large CRT televisions, even though large CRT TVs had more copper and costed more to recycle. In fact, the purchase orders did even accept Sony Trinitron 17" desktop monitors or screen-burned desktop CRTs or pre-VGA.  When someone is paying you $10 each for something specific, and refusing to accept other similar CRTs even if you pay them, it probably has nothing to do with (ahem) "rice paddies".

Brad Collis [CC BY 2.0]

We demonstrated that where people were buying large CRT televisions, like Accra and Lagos, that the shipping costs were enormous - far more cost per TV than the scrap value and avoided disposal cost combined. We showed a) the TV stations and TVs per household in those African cities could only possibly be explained by used CRT import (new TV sales to Africa could not possibly come close to explaining those numbers). We showed b) that "fuzzy current" - the brownouts and surges in electric grids in emerging markets - blew out new, expensive, flat TVs, but could be handled by or repaired in 1980s and 90s "solid state" CRT TVs.

We flew to places like Guangdong, Penang, Lima, Sonora, Taipei, Singapore, Cairo, Mostar, Accra and Tamale to interview the "geeks of color" who ran the purchasing, packing, distribution, payments, customs declarations - and who developed M-Pesa, the cell phone currency that is leapfrogging credit cards in Africa. We met the Taipei display-screen engineers who developed the technology that Korea's Samsung and USA's Apple were fighting for credit for inventing.

Long time readers saw the blog change from an object of ridicule and insult by charitable industrial complex NGOs and planned obsolescence repair-thwarters, to being cited by multiple university and research institutes.  Reporters sent emails asking "what to look for in Guiyu?"  The upstream water, flowing from textile mills and tanneries, and the chip harvesting reuse gurus who sorted every cell phone board and HP Laserprinter IIX board by its reuse-repurpose value.

Slowly, the citations of liars melted. Then rapidly. Quotes about E-Waste by E-Stewards are no longer front page news.

When recyclers refuse to boycott poor people, it is not because they are poisoning the poor.

In some cases, electronics recyclers - Brian Brundage's Intercon Solutions, Total Reclaim's Jeff Zirkle and Craig Lorch, the dudes at Discount Computers - have been prosecuted.  If the recyclers were white, BAN claimed it was for poisoning the poor. But that's incorrect. Those prosecutions were because the recyclers had signed a contract or "Pledge", based on BAN's race-baiting assertions about "shantytowns", "rice paddies", "swamps" and "orphans", to boycott geeks of color.  Perhaps the recyclers did defraud their customers, who believed the profiling hogwash. But I also know they were readers of the blog, and in some cases travelled with me to visit the truth and see for themselves.

There is one case where there was no fraud at all. The TV repairman did exactly as he promised, and was sentenced to 60 months in prison based on the hypothesis that the vast majority of TVs he was purchasing were not being re-used, but dumped in a swamp called "Sodom and Gomorrah". It was a textbook case of he-said, she-said. Were the TVs dumped in the "vast majority" of cases, as the UK prosecutors claimed? The African TV repairman, Joe Benson of BJ Electronics, said they were not...

Benson's conviction was jaw-dropping, in part because the methodology of his conviction. A GPS device attached to a TV that BBC Panorama's Raphael Rowe had "cut a wire" inside. The TV had arrived in West Africa. It was not found in the dump, but in an African man's home. BBC had to pay that man 40 British Pounds to get the TV back... But Cahal Milmo, Jim Puckett, Lord Chris Smith and others seemed to positively delight in slamming the jail cell on a black man.

We devoted almost 2 dozen blogs to #freeHurricaneBenson and #freeJoeBenson.  And he was given early release. And academics did research his case and largely exonerated him. Interpol quietly pulled the plug on "Project Eden".

The Basel Action Network went after me.

The very personal allegations made against me to Chicago Patch journalist Chris Paicely were just the beginning. I could not get phone calls or emails returned from regulators in Europe. BAN even used the same "cut a wire GPS tracker" to specifically defraud clients of mine in Somerville, MA (who had no publicly advertised drop-off, BAN's MIT interns had to ring a bell and go through an elevator to drop off the device).

But while I'm not teflon, no one could claim I'd committed fraud. For several weeks or months, the normal downstream scrap destination my company shipped scrap printers to (an E-Steward) failed to provide us a dock time. We wound up selling the printer scrap to a USA company who identified an amazing new investment of tens of millions of dollars in EcoPark Hong Kong, via a broker with import permits and R2 certification. It was a destination I'd never, ever agree to boycott.

But here I noticed something else at work. Fatigue. The controversy had gone stale. BAN was clearly trying to regain ground that they had, just as clearly, lost in the #FreeJoeBenson and #80%Dumping controversy.

We still have fresh topics.

  • The Fair Trade Recycling Offset is a really exciting opportunity to engage the Tech Sector in places like Ghana to play a role with the scrap sector, helping to properly recycle as many tons of 15-year-old TVs as they import in computers.
  • The proposal that EPA identify CRT furnace ready cullet as an industrial mineral (Bevel exempt) for use by secondary smelters could free the logjam of CRT glass that is bankrupting recycling programs. This would directly replace leaded minerals from places like the Kabwe, Zambia, Broken Hill Mine (use of CRT cullet to replace Smithsonite, Anglesite, etc)

  • The use of Americans With Disabilities Act staff - including some excellent talent in the Asperger's spectrum - to reproduce value-added sorting activity witnessed in China, Peru, and Ghana. My company now makes $50K / month that we used to lose inside a shredding machine, thanks to techniques we copied from geeks of color and engaged ADA staff in.
  • The role of land value in environmental enforcement, and unintended consequences of mining subsidies like the General Mining Act of 1872, promoted as a model to third world countries seeking development of their own extraction pollution superfund sites. (Well, that's not exactly a "fresh" topic - I wrote about it in an 11th grade English Class essay at Fayetteville Arkansas High School, and gave speeches about it to Ozark garden club gatherings).  But like Vance Packard's "Planned Obsolescence", it could come back. (One person with a role in drafting the Right To Repair bill credited this blog for inspiration in 2011).

If I was a professional writer, and wanted to publish a book, I'd be well advised to drop the blogging and run to a publisher while the controversy was still warm, and the ideas were still fresh. Instead, I've tried to help a few other professional writers (and their editors) to get the facts about used electronics recycling practices out to the world without the taint BAN tarred me with.

Like Obi Wan Kenobi, who lowered his light saber in the "first first one" Star Wars 4, I chose to join the invisible force.  At this point, I could lose my building, lose my business, even lose page ranking (there have been some attempts to stick some nasty code on the blog).

The people who are out there to speak, like Emmanuel Nyaletey, Grace Akese, Evans Quaye, John Sumani, Wahab Odoi, Elvis, Sharif, etc (just to name Ghanaians), have the mantle.

Doesn't much matter what happens to this grey-bearded blogger from here on out.

I will keep writing meta-blogs, tangents, and scratch at irritations like the "Welcome To Sodom" and "Placebo Life's What You Make It", and will never let go of Solly Granatstein or Raphael Rowe's accidental racism (Jim Puckett called it "collateral damage").

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