“The Circular Economy Doesn’t Revolve Around Us”

Testimony Submitted July 4, 2019

via Fair Trade Recycling (WR3A.org)

The environmental WEEE policies supported by the UK mean well. They mean fabulously well. When I met Lord Chris Smith at a public meeting to launch INTERPOL’s “Project Eden”, I could see the passion towards ending what was thought to be the scourge of the planet - E-Waste exports.

The UK had made the export (except for “fully functional”) used electronics a crime.  African, Asian and Latin American tech sector importers were labelled “waste tourists”. The House of Commons reported in 2012 that the exported secondhand computers represented a “strategic mineral” interest, and that whether or not they were reused (the HOC report did, to its credit, cast doubt on the “80% waste” statistic proclaimed by Lord Chris Smith), that the UK’s industrial sector needed the metals to remain in the UK’s “circular economy”.

In 2014, Joseph “Hurricane” Benson accepted a guilty plea for “illegally” exporting used electronics. He did not admit to dumping them (he purchased them and exported them at much higher cost than disposing them). He knew, as a TV repairman from Nigeria, exactly how the secondhand equipment would be reused and re-sold. He admitted guilt to the UK’s new law that made secondhand electronics exports illegal.

We met Benson, and spent the next 4 years researching African used electronics trade, with specific attention to those imported from the USA and UK since the 1990s.

Export for repair, and even recycling, is explicitly legal under the Basel Convention (see Annex IX, B1110). But the UK had written its own law, aimed at used electronics export. Not only was Joseph “Hurricane” Benson sentenced to prison, but he was excoriated as an evil polluter, as a man who dumped waste on his own native countrymen. He was made an example and written up by the BBC, UNEP, SkyNews, and countless other report writers as cause of the “largest e-waste dump on earth” (Agbogbloshie, Ghana). Using northern Ghanaian Dagomba translators, we interviewed the scrappers, traced their routes to see where the junk came from, and documented how it was being scrapped and resold into the world recycling market. If a single copper cable has ever, ever been buried in a landfill in Africa, we could find no evidence of such.

As someone who lived in a remote area of Cameroon in the 1980s, a village with no post office, bank, telephone, and fewer than 1 vehicle per 1000 residents, I know my neighbor had a colour television set.  Nigerian pirated VHS tapes were for sale on blankets on every corner (“Rambo” and “Rocky” were big hits, but Mr. S. Stallone earned little income from it). 

The assumption that junkyards like Agbogbloshie were receiving sea containers full of electronic waste for primitive treatment was promoted by thousands of White Saviours. But it would never had stood the test of a solid interview with actual African electronics professionals, repairmen, tech sector traders, aka “Geeks of Colour”. Our World Reuse Repair & Recycling Association (WR3A.org), dba Fair Trade Recycling, is here to introduce you to these experts, if you are willing to listen.

The economic argument - that it’s impossible to profit by exporting electronics to Africa if not but for reuse value - is strong. Not one single solitary sea container has ever been seen at Agbogbloshie (which UK journalists represented as receiving 500 such sea containers per month). The World Bank statistics show the number of households in cities like Lagos and Accra had at least one television in 2001 - a statistic which makes Agbogbloshie bewilderingly small, given the waste generation those African households would create in 15 years, if they consumed and disposed of electronics the way Europeans do.  But Africans don’t treat their possessions that way, for the most part. There is a TV or cell phone repair shop on almost every corner, and the Techs in our network actually build replacement circuit boards from scratch, using transistors salvaged and kept in coffee tins, rather than throw one out for lack of a replacement part.

The Akosombo hydroelectric dam in Ghana is more than 50 years old. Long retired BBC experts, like Dr. Graham Mytton, can tell you precisely how many hundreds of TV stations were active in Africa in 1977. Did anyone for a moment think that Africans would have been watching the Premier League games on brand new TV sets if Joseph Benson had never opened his business?

The IMF and World Bank have decades of consulting studies which explain how the developing world relied on a “critical mass of users” owning used TVs, used cell phones, used computers, etc. to make investible the hydroelectric power grid, the TV stations, the cell phone towers, and the internet cables and satellites which supply bandwidth, power, content, etc.

The “strategic metals” that UK’s “big shred” industry cries for were mined by Africans, in metal mines like Kabwe in Zambia. If there is an environmental crime to investigate, look upstream, to the conflict metal mines that created those materials for your industries to use.

The Circular Economy is a wonderful thing, and WR3A is delighted that it has your support. Our African members, too, believe in the Circular Economy. But like Copernicus and Galileo, they do not believe that it revolves around You.

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