Testimony from African Geek to USA Congress

"My name is Antibo.  I'm from Central Africa."

Thank you for the opportunity to testify today

America is a wonderful place.  We have watched the enormous technological accomplishments, in airplanes, jets, computers, cell phones, communication, travel and manufacturing.  Your role in the past century is unique, and fantastic.

At one point we thought America had a weakness - slavery, segregation.   We read papers and saw coverage in the 1950s and 60s, and we had fears.  We know now that America was dealing with these problems, and after a struggle, put them behind you.   We are even more impressed to see USA emerge as a model of racial tolerance and opportunity.

Recycling Slag: True Environmental Law

Slag is a partially vitreous by-product of smelting ore to separate the metal fraction from the unwanted fraction. It can usually be considered to be a mixture of metal oxides and silicon dioxide. However, slags can contain metal sulfides (see also matte) and metal atoms in the elemental form. While slags are generally used as a waste removal mechanism in metal smelting, they can also serve other purposes, such as assisting in the temperature control of the smelting; and also minimizing any re-oxidation of the final liquid metal product before the molten metal is removed from the furnace and used to make solid metal. [wikipedia 2012.02.28]
This definition of slag is similar to CRT cullet from recycling operations.  There's a big difference, however, in how the two are regulated.  Where you would like to think that regulation promotes recycling over mining of virgin mountains, the opposite is true.

Mining and smelting has defended the practice of piling up used slag from foundries in massive piles all over the Western USA, Canada and Mexico.    It was debated whether these piles had to be disposed, in landfills, or whether they were really doing no harm in the desert and (as the capitalist model goes), that smelters would come back for it to mine it again when:

A) the veins of lead in mountains (second to silica, the most abundant element in slag) became more expensive to mine, and the slag would become more attractive, and/or

B) technology which already worked in the lab would be economical enough to turn the slag into a commodity.

The mines get bigger and bigger and the slag piles got bigger and bigger.    How does the regulation of recycled "slag", or by-product, compare?

Foxconn Hires PR Firm

Psst.. spider, this is a pro-Foxconn post
I promised another post ranking the top ten "bad recycling" practices in Africa, but want to edit it more.  Meanwhile, I just ran across this story about "Foxconn", the western tradename of Han Hoi Precision Group.

Foxconn was one of the companies I discovered in 2002, on my first trip to Hong Kong, Shenzhen and Guangzhou.  As a student of international development, and a rabid crusader against "resource curse" mining, I was fascinated by the contract manufacturers like Foxconn, Wistron, BenQ, Proview, etc.

Today's news, Foxconn hires Burson-Marsteller to hit out at underage worker claims is already being buzzed about in the blogosphere.   Foxconn's tremendous growth has turned into a case study for "gotcha" journalism.  Companies like Apple, Sony, Panasonic, and other contractors are worried about collatoral damage from the scrutiny on the "big secret factory" that makes their Iphones, IPads, laptops, etc. (using USA, Japanese, Taiwanese, Korean and European engineering and designs... and imported raw materials.... and little else from outside China).

According to commentary on Slashdot, to hire a big "spin" firm is something akin to a "cover up".   Burson-Marstellar was hired to manage PR disasters like Tylenol cynanide poisonings, Three Mile Island over meltdowns, and Bohpal chemical spill disaster... and I guess we are supposed to draw some kind of correlation between embarrassing press, regardless whether the company is victim (Tylenol) or conspirator.

I'm quoting myself again, but "it's like recoiling from poverty is being equated with compassion".  I've speculated about some kind of Stephen Pinker evolutionary psychology which causes us to recoil from some things and rush to help others, and how children seem to be a key to pushing our buttons.  Sure enough, the headline is about "underage employees".

EWaste Risk: What Africans Typically Know

More on the UNEP Report... Risk Risk Risk.

Risk and Opportunities of E-Waste:  Where are WEee in Africa?
"Where are WEEE in Africa? sheds light on current recycling practices and on socio-economic characteristics of the e-waste sector in West Africa. It also provides the quantitative data on the use, import and disposal of electronic and electrical equipment in the region."

The report is not about landfilling e-waste.  The thing getting buried is the LEAD, not the lead.
Journalistic leads emphasize grabbing the attention of the reader.[5]
In journalism, the failure to mention the most interesting or attention grabbing elements of a story in the first paragraph is sometimes called "burying the lead." [wikipedia 2012.2.21]
The most interesting thing in the studies is the description of the Opportunity for reuse and repair markets, and the opportunities in safe recycling. I wish the Report was a celebration of the Geeks of Color.  The report finds 30,000 electronics repair techs in Ghana alone.  The report says the Tech in Africa earns ten times more than the "scrap boy".  The Fixers should be the story.  The reuse of the imports generates over $100M dollars in nations that need it.  The CRT monitors  get reused, not burned, most of the time.  But (tsk, tsk, tsk) "Opportunity" gets second billing.

Ok, after reuse, ten years later, as Africans generate twice-reused electronics, is that the Risk?  No - the report STILL talks about OPPORTUNITY.   Within the junk, the opportunity of recycling the end of life product, is still an opportunity, the report says.  The report implies that the only problem is that Africans don't know how to do it safely.

The report should be written in this order:

1.  Most of the used electronics imported are reused and repaired.
2.  The reuse and repair create most of the jobs and value.
3.  Africans continue to use and repair the devices for years.
4.  Finally, of the remaining 15%, there is also jobs and value, but we have safety concerns

The fourth is definitely a concern to me, too.  But it's not instruction the Africans need.   It's not technology, either.  Hand disassembly works better than shredding.  The problem is that African have tough choices on where to spend their money, and will face real risks.   They may take the low hanging fruit, the cash crop copper and gold, and leave the difficult stuff for later.  There is also a danger that Africans will suffer toxic consequences if they in turn pass the buck to other Africans, to people who aren't equipt or incentivized to recycle professionally.  That's what happened in China.

How risky is that risk?  Tomorrow I'll go public about the Toxic Risk from recycling e-waste in Africa.

The main risk
 in this whole trade is the risk of being accused, in the west, of being an exporter.   Clients feel that it risks their reputation, recyclers fear they will get photographed with a container in their yards, like Intercon or CRTR.   OEMs are primarily concerned about the risk that White Box Computer factories will crop up, refilling their stupid $22 ink cartridges and reusing their RAM sticks.

My thesis is that The West is primarily concerned about itself, and masquerades that as a concern about African boys working instead of being in school.   Most of us are concerned first with our own liability, and at best the risk to our own consciences, when we believed that most of the e-waste in the dumps was fresh off the boat.   Let's be honest, readers in the west want to hear about OUR stuff, our role.  No one seems to be covering that the UNEP Report is ABOUT Africans and the best things Africans can be doing right now.   I say that the best thing for Africa is to increase their choices of people supplying to them (IE end E-Stewards and SB20 prohibition), and work on as new a used product as they can get their hands on, and then find someone to pay them for the printed circuit boards who will also take the CRT tubes.

One last word about something Africans generally know better than Europe and USA counterparts... RISK.  Africans I know have Risk in perspective.  They know:

1.  Just how soon we are all going to be dead.
2.  Just how long we are all going to stay dead.

There is a perspective and a beauty and a friendliness in Africa that comes from this knowledge of "end of life".  It can also, perhaps, explain the shrugging off of horrible violence.  It also may help explain the joy of religion there. But in general, Africans don't exaggerate their self importance, and their waste, when they are really truly finished with it, isn't tinged by the importance of the generator, quite so very much.  And it means that stalling the internet access for ten more years is not a good option.

I've introduced Recyclers who don't export to people from Africa who wanted to buy from them.   I know what I saw in their eyes.  They are afraid to be voted out of the good people club.

The single biggest risk of recycling e-waste, it appears, is the high correlation to narcissim, and taking yourself way too seriously.  I should know.

Spinning: Where are WEee in Africa Study 2011

Readers know I'm following the coverage of the UN studies of Africa (Where are WEee in Africa" 2011) with great interest.  Elizabeth at IFIXIT wrote a good piece, which was hommaged at Treehugger.  The USA Voice of America (which, having lived in Africa, is important), covers the story pretty well, as does Science Daily.

You will remember we covered the first releases of the report HERE at Good Point Ethical Recycling blog in April, 2011, and have been squealing like pigs for 10 months, trying to get attention to it.

For those of us working and trying to help these emerging nations, there are babies in the e-waste bathwater.
The value of this informal economy is difficult to gauge, although the formal and informal income of those engaged in the e-waste sector in Ghana is estimated to be between $106 million and $268 million per year. VOANews.com
The goal of our Fair Trade Recycling is to make this better, not worse.  But we have to be realistic about banning the trade, taking the jobs away without studying them, as HR2284 will do.  End of life and lifecycle science is spinning in its grave.

Where the loads were studied most carefully (176 containers analyzed in Lagos), 70% were fully functional, and half of the remainder were repaired... that's 85% reuse.  Moreover, the report says what we've been saying - this is a huge opportunity, if done correctly (e.g. with fair trade):
In contrast to the informal recycling sector, where collection and recycling of E-waste is almost exclusively carried out by individuals largely consisting of migrant laborers who are often stigmatized in African societies as «scavengers», refurbishment is viewed as a relatively attractive economic opportunity for an increasingly well-educated, semi-professional labor force. In Accra (Ghana) and Lagos (Nigeria), the refurbishing sector provides income to more than 30,000 people.
The report is not without all kinds of caveats and cautions.  Clearly the authors are sensitive to the controversy of the imports of "e-waste" they are studying.

Here's a piece of friendly advice.  If you are a white European expert on environment, and someone comes to you for a quote on the UN Study, you might want to read at least the executive summary.  If you are a reporter, like Cal Milmo of the Independent, you may want to dig a bit next time a Nigerian is convicted of exporting e-waste.

UPDATE NOTE:  I've now met Susanne Dittke of Envirosense via Skype.  She is very smart and very interested in getting to the facts.  She was alarmed that her quote was used as it was in the article below and has contacted the reporter to retract it, said she had not read the UN Report and hadn't realized the article was about something she hadn't even seen...     

I've left some of the original "reaction" to the quote as it appeared in the trade press, but I do not want to imply any ill will on Susanne's part.  Her role as the consultant to this South African e-waste recycling plant is extremely important.   I'll write more about it in a future post.  The use of her quote to "spin" the UNEP report was well in my no-fly zone, but she is a top notch asset to the discussion so long as the reporter tells her what the heck she is commenting on.

Cleaning Up #EWaste Madness Mess

STORY:  Africa turns imported electronics into hundreds of millions of dollars in jobs.

BLACK HISTORY MONTH.... The point has been made.   The anti-export, e-waste watchdog organizations were fueled by an intoxicating certainty that globalization was "externalization", and that world trade is inherently suspect.

They created a fake statistic, out of very thin air, that 80% of the "ewaste" in the USA is exported, and that 80% of the imports into places like Africa were junk.   The math failed on face value, but the images of "scrap boys" banging metals apart carried the day.   Splitting copper from steel in motors was mysteriously labelled "toxic".

Despite my best efforts, in posts like "E-Waste Madness 2010", "We Shouldn't Have to Make That Choice 2009",  and Motherboard in 2011, the "Ewaste police" gathered steam.  I took arguments I'd made in trade print in 2002 (Recycling Today, "Setting a Higher Standard") and used the pulp blogging to document the innocence of the Geeks of Color.  Sometimes I wrote with facts and statistics, sometimes with reason, sometimes with literary allusions aimed at the higher education field, sometimes in other languages.  Sometimes I really stuck my neck out and named influential people who should know better, like Donald Summers, Josh Mailman, Solly Granatstein, and Terri Gross.   Sometimes, I use video and tweets.  But perhaps the most important efforts have been to document the actual trade, and fight the fraudulent statistics with real numbers, examined by grad students and professors in several continents.

E-Scrap News is the first major newspaper to call a duck a duck.   The stats on imports into Africa were fake. Basel Secretariat believed them, and sent researchers, and found ... exactly what I've been describing, in posts like Monkeys Running the Environmental Zoo.   The UN found several hundred scrap boys in dumps.  But they also found, shocker of shockers, 30,000 repair and reuse techs, producing value and internet, the exact same way as Singapore, South Korea, and Benjamin Franklin got started.  Buying surplus media production (display units or printing presses), and making them "good enough" for the "good enough market", creating sustainable jobs with added value.  Had CBS 60 Minutes spent one more day in China, and followed the film I'd given them, they would have seen the same thing.

So now what?  Will the E-Waste Madness now end?

War of Images: 3 Views of Hong Kong Waste, Recycling

World electronics recycling policy has been boiled down to characterization of trade between "wealthy" OECD nations and "poor" non-OECD nations.

Photos, film, and images describe people living in a geography which is too distant for the viewers to visit.

Below the photos and the break are two videos, two stories of what scrap exported to Hong Kong are all about.   One is the description from BAN.  The other is the biography of an American scrap recycling trader, describing what life is like in Hong Kong.

First, photos of SWANA style landfills in the "new territories".

IGS Photo Competition

Videos below

Pulp Blogging about Recycling: 16 Short Paragraphs

Pulp Non-Fiction.   My career, developing recycling infrastructure.  Markets, participation, and logistics make recycling more economical. People who want to recycle, and mills which can use waste materials as resources, working together.  You know, the alternative to cutting down rain forests.

Who is really poisoning and destroying his brothers?
The success of recycling, in many ways, is no more important than the establishment of an infrastructure for laundromats.   There weren't washing machines all over the country one hundred years ago.  Now there are.  They have created countless spare hours for poor women to use in more productive careers, education, etc.  Like internet cafes in Africa, they bring tech access to the masses.  But what could be more boring?

Part of the challenge for recycling culture is to accept our success and become boring.  We were part of an environmental sustainability movement.  In many ways, we were the most important part, as recycling saves carbon, energy, forests, and species, and creates wealth where there is poverty.

The temptation over the past ten years has been for recycling people like myself to try to find a new controversy, a new battle, a new war.  We are like retired colonels who miss the days of bravery and grandness. The temptation to set off on a new crusade is understandable.

For me, the pursuit of recycling infrastructure has become about erasing national boundaries in order to make the solid waste hierarchy more efficient.   We reduce mining by extending the lives of products already mined, for example.  In doing so, we bring internet cafes to dark places.  Others stay in the USA, and see "overseas" as a new adversary.

EWaste: Where We Go With What We Know? (AFRICA)

I'm an optimist about the future, not an apologist for the present.  Recoiling from poverty is not the same thing as compassion.  We have to get our hands dirty helping Africa, not just keep our consciences in shiny isolation.  
Scientific study, UN participation, interviews with importers and exporters, surveys by ISRI, mapping of transport by geographers, measure of display sale shipments, measure of growth of online access... in the past ten years we've learned a lot about electronic scrap recycling that we didn't know when "exporting harm" (NGO's first video) hit the circuit.

Some in the OECD* want us to think there are still too many unknowns to "risk trade" with surplus electronics overseas.   But with what we know, where do we go to make progress for the 83% of the world in "non-OECD" countries?

What happens to "E-Waste" In Africa?

 -    Most of the junk being burned by kids was in use for years, collected from offices and homes in Accra.

 -    Most of the money and jobs in the African recycling economy come from the added value of repair and refurbishing.  There are 30,000 technicians, only a few hundred "scrap boys".

 -    Most technicians prefer to work on electronics from rich people which they can resell and reuse.

 -    Most of the scrap boys have no other place to go except war, drugs, mining, and crime.

 -    Most end-of-life computers are hand-disassembled, which adds economic and environmental value -  
    stripped to the bone for reuse and parts potential, and every metal is graded and cleaned.

 -    Rich in Africa get new computers, middle class get used computers, the poor inherit the scrap.  The
       problem in the imagery poverty.  Poor won't get richer via economic isolation.

Who has the Supply of Electronic Scrap, surplus and waste in the USA?

 -    Most wealthy generators of technology are risk averse, won't risk to be accused  of dumping.

 -    Most wealthy generators of new technology buy new (upgrade) rather than repair and reuse.

 -    Most wealthy generators of new technology live in states which ban the export of used computers.

 -    Most recyclers of technology don't have time or experience in Africa.

 -    Most of the "worst e-waste" is processed in the USA, clean scrap value is sold on world markets.

What happens to surplus electronics in the USA?

 -    Most businesses who export to Africa don't get big contracts which ban export to Africa.

 -    Most Africans who buy from the USA don't buy from companies with big contracts in USA.

 -    Most containers of electronics, copiers, displays, unloaded in Africa are sourced from smaller e-waste
      businesses without the capacity to shred the bad and buy new.

 -    Most domestic reuse techs prefer first dibs on USA laptops, servers and computers.

What does Fair Trade Recycling do?

 -    Creates a trading window for big USA companies to sell their best stuff to African Techs.

 -    Gives wherewithal and incentives to Africans to adapt best recycling practices.

 -    Provides for 3rd party verification and mediation when best laid plans go wrong (containers tipped,
      demand changes, expectations aren't met).

Who Opposes Fair Trade Recycling?

 -    Companies which have invested millions in shredding and e-Stewards Standards.

 -    Refurbishers who see "tested working" as guarantee against competition from African Techs.

 -    New Manufacturers who see market cannibalization in reuse and refurbishing markets.

 -    Junk sellers who like the idea that "export is good" but don't want 3rd party verification and mediation.

 -    Dictators who want internet to be difficult and expensive, accessible only to the connected.

 -    Software companies with concerns about spread of unlicensed ware in unlicenseable nations.

 -    Legitimate E-Scrap Recyclers with concerns about an under-funded "certification" process.

How Do We Jump-Start Fair Trade Recycling?  (Suggestions wanted)




* OECD = Obsessive Electronic Consumption and Demand Nations (tips hat to Slashdot submitter)

Undisciplined blogging on "e-waste" arts

James Joyce chose his path.

Maybe he was only discovered by a future group of readers.

Maybe he wrote for them and didn't care about his hit counts in the meantime.

You don't want to aggravate and alienate a current reader (though artists have done so).

But if they were attracted to you originally for being what you are being, maybe trying to be someone else to keep them isn't the right response.

I can't personally respond to comments from the future, though.  And I thrive on dialectic.  So I have to get my dialectic dialogue fix from the people spitting on my tinkerer friends.

My belief is that I cannot possibly write anything to change the hearts and minds of the planned obsolescence and shredding industrial complex.  They are money making tiger robots, burning bright.

But if I manage to penetrate a spouse or son or respected elder, someone with a soul and a personal connection to the people pulling the trigger of friendly fire, that I may, as one person, have an effect.

I'm taking my family to meet these men and women in South America next month.  They previously met geeks, tinkerers, techs, and good-enough debrillards in Egypt and Mexico.  My 3 kids don't have a hint in their minds that Africans or Asians or Latinos are lesser intellects.  They've seen engineering techs best me in trade and haggling, fixing things I couldn't, winning like friends across a tennis court.

That's finally it.  The Watchdogs kids will get images of primitives.  My kids have images of equals.  Stuff that in your turkey.

The Problems with WR3A: Dirty Business

The fair trade recycling ideas, started with WR3A in 2006, have been steadily growing in recognition.

We hit a bump (as everyone did) during the recession in 2009-2010.  Our WR3A model of cooperative marketing continued to be successful at funding end-of-life recycling at the back end of contract manufacturing (takeback) factories, ie using leveraged supply agreements to win improved processes overseas.   But we ran into three problems:

Valentines Day: Loving v. Virginia 1967

From Wikipedia 2012.02.14

Mildred Delores Jeter Loving (July 22, 1939 – May 2, 2008) and her husband Richard Perry Loving (October 29, 1933 – June 29, 1975) were plaintiffs in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia (1967).
The Lovings were an interracial married couple who were criminally charged under a Virginia statute banning such marriages. With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Lovings filed suit seeking to overturn the law. In 1967, the Supreme Court ruled in their favor, striking down the Virginia statute and all state anti-miscegenation laws as unconstitutional violations of the Fourteenth Amendment.[1]

I was 5 years old.  My folks told me it was sad that people wanted to interfere with this couples marriage, but you had to worry how their kids would grow up.   Well, their kids would grow up to see a half black half white president.   Sometimes externalizing costs is also externalizing benefits, and it's known as sharing, and it's none of your damn business.  I am absolutely certain that the outcome of fair trade is not going to be any of the disasters or horrific exploitation promised by the anti-export campaign.  Happy Valentines Day...

SCIENCE DAILY: Africa E-Waste Hoax Confirmed!!!

NEWS FLASH:  Most used computers and electronics found in Africa were purchased and imported at very great expense.   There is no incentive to pay for and ship junk.  The logic of anti-export organizations - that a few good ones at retail could explain their claim of 80% junk - may work mathematically, but makes no business sense.   Why would Africans buy the goods for $20, and pay $19 per unit just to ship each one, and then burn them for $3 worth of copper?  Today's Science Daily refers to UN Studies providing us with the truth about e-waste:

Domestic Consumption Main Contributor to Africa's Growing E-Waste Problem

ScienceDaily (Feb. 10, 2012) — In the five countries studied in the report "Where are WEEE in Africa?" (Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Liberia, and Nigeria), between 650,000 and 1,000,000 tons of domestic E-waste are generated each year, which need to be managed to protect human health and the environment in the region. The report sheds light on current recycling practices and on socio-economic characteristics of the E-waste sector in West Africa. It also provides the quantitative data on the use, import and disposal of electronic and electrical equipment (EEE) in the region. The report draws on the findings of national E-waste assessments carried out in the five countries from 2009 to 2011. 
The article takes its news from the report "Where are WEEE in Africa", published by the Basel Convention Secretariat.

FACT CHECK:  As fewer rich nations allow surplus e-waste exports to Africa, but demand remains, the quality goes down.   There are fewer suppliers to choose from.  PROHIBITION ECONOMY 101.  The lower the quality, the faster Africa's domestic recycling problem grows.  'War on reuse" makes it worse.

The Solution is obvious to the writers at Science Daily and the Basel Secretariat.   Allow import for reuse and repair, and have the companies exporting provide incentives and training to improve the recycling infrastructure.   In other words, Basel Secretariat and Science Daily just threw another big log on the Fair Trade Recycling bonfire.  Interestingly, the opinions in the Techie Listserve, Slashdot, overwhelmingly side with the obvious... reuse and repair are good, donating to good recycling beats banning bad recycling.

Multiple UN studies now confirm what we've been telling you from the field.  Most of the junk discarded by Africans was twice-reused for years, not hauled out of sea containers to avoid recycling fees in rich nations.   The used computer stores accept trade ins, but they make their money selling gently used equipment, like Goodwill or Salvation Army.   It's simple.  Poor techs, geeks of color, prefer to buy and work on rich people's surplus.  That's why they import.  Rich people discard after 3 years, and unless it's shredded, an African will try to buy it and use it for another ten years.  Goodwill, Salvation Army, and St. Vincent de Paul all know, you collect used goods in the rich neighborhoods like Wellesley, you may sell in Mattapan and Southie.

From the Basel Study:
The research revealed that there are some specific similarities between the refurbishing and recy-cling sectors in Nigeria and Ghana. In both countries, there is a well-organized repair and refur-bishing sector that is focused on used equipment either from imports or from domestic sources such as businesses and households. In both Accra (Ghana) and Lagos (Nigeria), this refurbishing sector generates income for more than 30,000 people...
 One major challenge for West African countries is to prevent the import of e-waste and near-end-of-life equipment without hampering the socio-economically valuable trade of used EEE of good quality. In addition, high volumes of domestically generated e-waste require well-functioning local take-back and recycling systems. Challenges include the establishment of appropriate collection strategies, ensuring that high volumes of valuable and nonvaluable waste fractions are collected equally and that those fractions reach appropriate treatment and disposal facilities. In addition, connecting informal collectors to a formal recycling structure is pivotal, along with appropriate capacity building and training. 
Locally adapted recycling technologies for West Africa should make use of the abundant labor force instead of deploying expensive shredding and sorting machinery. To ensure a maximum yield of valuable recycling fractions, West African recyclers should be encouraged to interlink with international recycling companies and networks to develop market outlets for their pre-processed e-waste fractions for a maximized return of value for secondary raw materials.  A sustainable e-waste management system would also need an adequate financing scheme, a level playing field and appropriate market incentives. It is thought that similar to policies in OECD countries, e-waste recycling systems in Africa could be developed in line with the principle of Extended Producer Re-sponsibility.

Is the system perfect?  No.  It needs reform.  What Africa needs is the same thing the USA and EU needed fifteen years ago - a cleaner recycling system for the stuff that eventually goes bad.  They DON'T need to be cut off the internet, or to be forced to spend half their annual salary on a brand new computer.  China has more scrap-economy demand, a different subject (see 2010 E-Waste Travels in Scrap Metal)

Egypt's Revolution Profiled - Wolman, Stewardship miss 'ewaste' role

DAVID WOLMAN - David Wolman is a contributing editor at Wired, a former Fulbright journalism fellow and a winner of the 2011 Oregon Arts Commission individual artists fellowship. His third book is The End of Money.  (The Atlantic, May 4, 2011)

Wolman's new book, The Instigators, follows how Revolution 2.0 came to a head, and how online and Wired activists were able to communicate and sell the democracy on the Arab street.

I have sent a note to Wolman (though these never seem to get anywhere) suggesting that he go back a little further in his timeline.   As I've said many times, the revolution did not happen on Ipads and Android phones.   Vermont had a role in exporting about 30,000 affordable used computers to Egypt between 2002 and 2008.  In 2008, the Egyptian customs seized $80,000 worth of P4s in three sea containers, and our direct trade was broken.

Two years later, Jim Puckett of BAN was applauding the Egyptians classification of any computer manufactured more than 3 years earlier (i.e., costing less than half your annual salary) was illegal "e-waste", working or not.  The CRT display devices, which are good for 20 years, were banned.

But Mubarak could not put the Genie back in the bottle.  (photos below)  The efforts to "profile" geeks of color as polluters, as terrorists, as primitives, went down in the 9th round.

BAN BAN Reports on Jakarta, not on Kenya

BAN should get credit when they get it right.  And BAN should take credit when they got something right back in 2006... when it turns out they assisted the first study of Africa used computer imports - and found that 80% are reused.  A link to the study follows.
primitive environmentalism

As for this week's headline, BAN appears to have gotten a bad guy for a change.  According to E-Scrap News, the loads of "ewaste" seized at the port of Jakarta, originating in Europe, are dirty loads... they sound like the office material we got from the Waterbury Office Irene Floods.   The broker, WR Fibers, is not anyone I know or anyone that any of my former buyers in Indonesia have anything to do with.

Now, the free trade argument can still be made... note that sales of raw ore and blister copper - dirt from the ground with high metal content - is still legal to export.  Digging it out of a mountain or rain forest doesn't seem to me to be safer than taking a percentage of metal from dirt second-hand.  And I still wait to hear from the person who bought it, whether they are upset, or were paid to dump it, or see value (like ore value) that we don't recognize.  But I'm relieved it's not another refurbisher being accused.

Faces and Tales from E-Waste Internationals

Below, just some video of the faces from our 2007-2009 CEA Grant video of the Recycling Geeks and Tinkerers we met worldwide.  I was just goofing around with finding clips from different geeks we interviewed.  Demanufacturing and reuse with folks from Arizona, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Egypt, Indonesia, Louisiana, Malaysia, Mexico, Nepal, North Carolina, Peru, and Vermont.  There are hours of video uploaded from these countries at www.viddler.com, and not enough time or money to translate or edit them.  Viddler is a great alternative to Youtube, by the way, nice video quality.

Korea on Korea E-Waste Trade

Tip of the hat to Adam Minter, who's burrowed in to complete his "scrap book".

I'm not really sure what to make of this story in Mainichi Daily News, which is about the arrest of a South Korean for selling used PCs to North Korea.  But what is clear is what it is not about.

  • It's not about the South Korean exploiting North Korea's poverty.
  • It's not about racial guilt.
  • There's no discussion of "OECD" South Korea trading with North Korea.
  • There's no discussion of whether the personal computers were "fully functional", or "tested working", or ewaste.
  • No one speaks about toxics, hard drive information, or other ju-ju words which elevate the e-waste crisis.

It's not about a dictator calling the imports e-waste.  Dictators normally want to restrict the sale and distribution of cell phones, display devices, and internet.  In places like Pakistan, people call computer assets commodities, they are something people bid, something people want.  Labelling them "waste" leads to an SOPA-like uproar (Daily Times, April 2010 ‘No ban on import of used computers’).

In this case, the dictatorship is silent about the exchange of goods.

The outcry is from the nations who don't want North Koreans to be using the internet.

I don't know enough about this particular set of computers, who sold it, who bought it, or how they'd be used.  Maybe for a weapons system, maybe to edit porn.  Maybe to translate John Lennon songs...

E-Waste Vid: Beginning, Endings, Boundaries, Edges

A non-political, fresh take on "e-waste" trade and export by third party researchers (J. Lepawsky, C. Mather) in Newfoundland brings us back to the beginning, for me.  The 2011 film is titled "From Beginnings and Endings to Boundaries and Edges:  Rethinking circulation and exchange through electronic waste."  It touches on reuse, disposal, mining, recycling, and people as conveyors, adding and salvaging and retaining value in a chain.   Lepawsky and Mather are listening to the e-waste trade, rather than lecturing to it.

Click MORE to see video

THIS IS MY CRACK: Internet Printing Press in "Good Enough" Markets

Is it possible that Guiyu, China, has just as many noble reuse jobs (reuse of boards at the chip level) as it does "primitive wire burning" jobs?

Is it possible that more of the -e-scrap in Guiyu comes from huge cities than from imports? (metro Shenzhen-Guangzhou-HongKong has the population of JAPAN)

Is it possible that most of the scrap in Agbogbloshie, Ghana, comes from twice-reused goods, and not straight out of sea containers?

Is it possible that the Basel Convention, in Annex IX B1110, explicitly makes import of display devices for re-manufacturing and reuse legal?

Is it possible that Indonesia has huge, contract-manufacturing factories with hundreds of employees refurbishing PCs and displays for white-box sales to places like India and Egypt?

Is it possible that the Arab Spring or green revolution would never have happened without USA and European exports of cell phones and monitors for repair and reuse?

Is it possible that none of the E-Stewards recyclers is even coming close to the NGO's goals of supplying those markets with "fully functional, tested working" equipment?

Is it possible that innocent Geeks of Color, techs in Jakarta, Cairo, Lima and Nairobi, are being racially profiled as "criminal enterprises" because they prefer to work on Stuff thrown out by rich neighborhoods, rather than poor?

A journalist like Michael Rey, Nichole Young, Solly Granatstein, Ben Elgin, Brian Grow, Terri Gross, Scott Pelley, or John Stossel (all of whom have done "gotcha" stories on e-waste recycling) hasn't really done their job if they don't check these boxes, i.e., at least ASK the questions.  When they do visit the alleged ewaste import sites and ask these questions of the alleged "criminals", reporters tend produce more nuanced stories, like those written by Ingrid Lobet, Tom Knudson, Adam Minter, Klaus Neimann and Brian X. Chen.

Journalists aren't experts, and they cannot succumb to the temptation of posing as experts.  What they can do is apply Socratic Method to a dispute or exaggerated claim.  The latter, claims by "recyclers" who were actually exporting most of their equipment, seemed like an easy thing to test without going very deep into the developing world.  But they should have found one of the 3 billion people earning $3K per year, and asked them more questions.  Like, how they are getting online and communicating, when they can't afford a new PC?  Then they should ask them where the good ones went (to doctors offices, internet cafes, and college dorms) before photographing leftovers on the ground, and printing "80% waste" baloney.

New Allegations by Basel Action Network vs. Indonesia

As regular readers know, I believe the biggest environmental outrage of the decade was Basel Action Network's accusation in 2010 of a large scale computer monitor takeback and refurbishing factory (PT Imtech of Semarang, Indoenesia) of being a "hazardous waste" polluter.   BAN refused to ever acknowledge that the factory was permitted, ISO9000, ISO14001, had put glass-to-glass washing equipment for incidental breakage, and was providing sustainable recycling and reuse jobs in the tsunami-ravaged nation.

I don't have any details about the accusation made late yesterday against the Netherlands and other exporters of "e-waste" to Jakarta.  It may or may not be  one of the Indonesian Techs we interviewed on camera.

We do know for sure that BAN has falsely accused people in the past, and has a pattern of not admitting it or explaining themselves.  BAN made false statements about the 2010 rejection (BAN said in writing that the Indonesian government had opened the containers and discovered hazardous waste, but the Indonesian government said that they were "notified" by BAN that the containers has HW and returned them unopened).  We got independent verification from Port of Boston officials (where the 2010 containers were returned) that the seals on the containers had not been opened.

We cannot defend anyone involved in today's case, as we have done no more business in Indonesia.   Perhaps the "e-waste" is hazardous, I really don't know.

Here is video and slides of a factory I do know was in Jakarta, where todays containers were seized.  They refurbished computers into like-new condition and sold them in Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Iran and other nations which were hungry for affordable internet.  When we visited, they were refurbishing 5,000 computer devices per DAY and employed hundreds of people.  Yes, that's 5,000 units per DAY.

I approached BAN about a Compromise two years ago... hoped that BAN would look at these pictures and perhaps feel a little remorse, and be a little gentler about the concept of Fair Trade Recycling.   Jim was civil, but said his hands were tied, as he believed that the export SHOULD be made illegal, even if it was not, event if no pollution resulted.  His theory was that rich people will always abuse poor people, and stopping the trade between rich nations and poor would result in poor nations "leapfrogging" into better technology.   While he admitted it wasn't actually illegal under Basel Convention, that for consistency he had to oppose it because he objected to that part of the Basel Convention (Annex IX).

BAN's solution to me was that Basel Convention Annex IX B1110 (which makes this activity LEGAL) should be amended by a Basel Ban Amendment (so that even if legal now, it would become illegal), and that the factory should buy worn out stuff from poor countries instead of the 3 year old equipment they like to refurbish from rich countries.  Then BAN said that they would meet the demand for internet by selling "tested working" and "fully functional" computers from E-Stewards, eliminating the need for refurbishing jobs in Indonesia.  We wonder how close to 5,000 working units per day their E-Steward shredding companies have come.

So in the past the NGO has committed fraud.  In the past the NGO created a hoax that the computers at the dump in Ghana were recently imported (no evidence of that).  We'll see whether their history of false accusations is even brought up by Treehugger, Grist, Huffington Post or Good.

The European and American press are cowards for not uncovering the money that goes from planned obsolescence interests into this shady, reckless, racist organization in Seattle whose job it is to chase reuse entrepreneurs out of the closet.  This Seattle NGO organization does nothing for the environment.   The biggest shame of the environmental movement is that they continue to circulate the accusations and stories and never lift a finger to investigate the truth about the people who have committed no crime except to be geeks of a different color.

Basel Action Networks press release is below.  Maybe this time they are right.  A broken clock does that twice per day.  If the formula is to accuse every geek of color who buys surplus property from rich nations a polluter, they may eventually get one... because they have millions of people to profile.

113 Containers of Toxic Waste Arrives at Indonesian Port
Groups Call for Ratification of Basel Ban and Crackdown on Global Dumping
Jakarta, Indonesia, February 3 2012 – On the heels of massive quantities of toxic wastes arriving at the Jakarta Tanjung Priok Port last week, environmental groups led by Indonesia Toxics-Free Network, the Basel Action Network, Ban Toxics, and BaliFokus condemned the illegal trade and urged world governments that have not already done so to ratify the Basel Ban Amendment and to enforce the Basel Convention as a matter of urgency. 

"Winning" the War on Diversity, Alabama Style

Howdy, I growed up in Arkansas, and am always keeping an eye out on our state ranking. Alabama has usually kept out of the fray in the fight between 49th and 50th rank between Mississippi and Arkansas.  But, as The Economist observes, a new Immigration Law in Alabama may succeed where teenage pregnancy and ignorance has failed.  FTA

ALABAMA’S immigration law, boasted Micky Hammon, an Alabama legislator and one of its co-authors, “attacks every aspect of an illegal immigrant’s life. They will not stay in Alabama…This bill is designed to make it difficult for them to live here so they will deport themselves.” It is not, however, designed to introduce visiting executives from Mercedes-Benz, which employs thousands at its factory in the state, to the pleasures of Alabama’s jails. But that is what happened to Detlev Hager, who was caught in November driving in Tuscaloosa with only German ID on him.
The article describes how the Alabama legislator "shrewdly included a severability clause, ensuring that if a court strikes down or prohibits one part of the law, the rest remains in effect."  My God, it's Brilliant!
...Mr Hammon’s fond hope—that illegal immigrants will leave—seems to have come true. Anecdotal reports suggest that thousands of Latinos, legal as well as illegal, have left Alabama. Farmers complain of rotting crops and building companies of rising costs, both because there are too few workers. Samuel Addy, an economist at the University of Alabama, estimates the law’s total cost—taking into account productivity declines, increased enforcement cost, and declines in aggregate consumer spending and tax revenue since so many workers have left—in the billions.
The Chicago Tribune reports Addy's estimated cost to Alabama at $10.8 billion.  This is similar to the outcome expected from another "good theory", about e-waste recycling, championed by a group of shredding companies in support of the Green Thompson anti-export bill.  Their idea is that if we eliminate exchange of goods and services, the USA will create jobs.  

The idea may or may not have a certain local merit (if you work at a shredding company in California).  But shredding money generally doesn't increase payroll.   Like the anti-immigration bill in Alabama, the economic theory won't pass the straight-face test on its economic merits.  But it nevertheless finds political fuel from the basest American instincts, as it becomes tinged with the latent passions of jealousy and racism.  Some people think that money coming into their state is not the answer - that their boats will only rise if they vote other peoples' boats to sink.

The theory is, if you stop trading with 83% of the world, and in particular the 3 billion people who are getting online internet at ten times the rate of the developing world, using used display units and other "non-obsolete" surplus which doesn't obey "Moore's law" of obsolescence, USA jobs will result.  All you have to do is turn $100 billion dollars of repairable IT equipment upgraded every year into $1 billion dollars of scrap.  Sit back and watch as the jobs arrive faster than Alabama White Collar Cotton Pickers.


It's an old lesson, retold from a letter in 1865, written by a former slave to his former Tennessee slave owner (republished on the web this week, e.g. Huffington Post).

It's a lesson Alabama is re-learning, as the immigrants walk away from the fields and leave crops to rot.  It's a lesson Basel Action Network brought to us when they wrote letters to Malaysia objecting to Samsung Corning using USA CRT cathode ray tube cullet to make new recycled CRTs... Malaysia decided they could get all the CRT cullet they needed from Japan and Korea, thanks much.  And it's a lesson BAN brought to us again when BAN attacked contract manufacturing factories.  Remember, those are the "big secret factories" which upgrade CRT displays by the thousands per day for affordable use in the mideast and Africa (CRTs withstand heat better than LCDs).  The factories are still there, and still buying... they just are not buying from the USA.  Thanks.   That's going to create more jobs here in Vermont when I turn the $200K we used to get from reuse into -minus -$30K in CRT glass cullet.

There is something in Jourdan Anderson's letter to confederate Colonel P.H. Anderson, which seems to repeat itself in the history of trade between immigrants in Alabama and Geeks of Color in overseas refurbishing and recycling markets...

Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me.
From your old servant,
Jourdon Anderson.

Fair Trade Recycling: Networks of Tinkerers

I have a lot of deadlines pressing, and a lot of 80% finished stuff in the DRAFTS folder, so I'll be spending less time in the next week competing for the latest and most cutting edge developments on electronics scrap export policy, surplus property policy, e-waste, digital divide, and Fair Trade Recycling.  We do have a big WR3A Announcement coming down the pike in the next 2 weeks, so stay tuned.

Tinkered Printing Press
Meanwhile, we try to be a resource for university and college students who are studying the past and present about trade in "e-waste" and surplus property.  We have an exciting new Master's Thesis student here in Middlebury for 6 months, who traveled from Paul Cezanne University in France just to study "E-Waste" with WR3A.

Many of these students come from other nations, and it's obvious to many of them that transfer of surplus technology is a transfer of wealth.  We never seem to see that simple idea in any UN, EU, or even EPA documentation.  It's as if our culture has become so obsessive-compulsive about food spoilage in the refrigerators that we are banning sale of food to starving nations unless we have proof it won't spoil.  If you give food to a starving child, you better have done your paperwork.

The "hyperbole of harm" accusations by groups like Basel Action Network have made donations and trade almost "radioactive" for donors.  Who is hurt?  Poor people, democracy, and the environment.  

My "hypothesis" that "tinkering" (see Japan, a Network of Tinkerers, Y. Takahashi, 2000) is the opposite of the "resource curse", that repair and refurbishing (or "Yankee Ingenuity") is a form of "value added" which has been critical to the most successful international development stories... it can probably be documented here in the USA when Yankees bought manufacturing practices and "surplus from upgrades" from England (c.f. Benjamin Franklin autobiography, on printing technology).

So again for the academics, here is some light reading about how Japan went from resource-starved and military complex into becoming the kingpin for technology two decades later.  This is happening in real time in India, Indonesia, and China - just to  name three of the five largest countries in the world, two of them the top Muslim population and largest democracies.

A Network of Tinkerers:
The Advent of the Radio and Television Receiver Industry in Japan
Yuzo Takahashi
Technology and Culture
Vol. 41, No. 3 (Jul., 2000), pp. 460-484
(article consists of 25 pages)
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/25147538
A Network of Tinkerers: The Advent of the Radio and Television Receiver Industry in Japan