Environmental Injustice and Work By Hand

The theme of the blog has been a defense of work done by hand.  Solving the E-Waste Problem [StEP], six years after we met at E-Scrap, has started a Best of Two Worlds campaign to champion the advantages of hand-disassembly of e-scrap.  They don't go far enough, in my opinion, towards defending trade between rich and poor (the poor prefer to hand-disassemble and repair rich people's stuff).  But it's progress.

In every developing city, there are people who have jobs that are "beneath" rich people.  [Useless Lists of Jobs Beneath Wealthy People is one of the top ranked posts of 2012].

If you take a camera very close to any job of any hard working poor person, you may frighten someone.   The butcher shops are "nasty".   Working in an auto garage exposes one to carcinigens and mutigens. Bleaches at the laundry and in mop buckets.   Repetitive tasks, risking motion injury, at assembly plants.  Mining.  Petrochemical factories.  Forestry. Smelters.   Working in 105 degree heat, smelling lignin, at a recycled toilet paper factory in Massachusetts may only look good to a migrant worker.

This technique of bringing a camera very close to one of the workers that picks our organic cotton "by hand", and making us feel guilty for using, owning, accessing things, is cheaply reproduced by even worthless idiot "non-governemental organizations".   It's like camera proliferation, arming idiots with the ability to combine poverty+unfamiliar-race+trade to impugn... anything.   Anything good or bad.  Even recycling.

Defining E-Waste Racism: Part III Caste Irons

I'm on vacation and so I'm not interrupted, as I normally am.   That's good and bad.

Before posting the next part of my Marlow-inspired (I've just finished Joseph Conrad's 1902 work "Heart of Darkness") rant on the people who illogically criminalize contact between rich and poor, I thought I'd post this link to a morning story on Romeo and Juliet -in India.

As the USA celebrates the Loving v.Virginia interracial marriage, which was an imprisonable offense during my lifetime (and an annual theme of this blog), the growth of cities and expansion of information (parents and local society no longer control all the ideas of heaven, hell, and society) has led to inter-caste marriages in India.

BBC Reports on "A Hideaway for India's Rebel Couples", and interviews a woman who married a childhood friend - a barber from a lower caste - and the threats from her family to get a gun and shoot him dead.

I'm thinking there has to be some Stephen Pinker brain evolution behind the fear of intermingling.  But just as used computers sold Egypt made it stronger (democratically, by weakening the sick and weakened ruling class), diverse genetics make our species stronger.

Finding a case where marrying a lower caste turned out badly... that was the main enforcement in Virginia prior to the Loving marriage... threats of how badly in might turn out.   That's the tactic trying to keep companies like mine from negotiating terms for the sale of capacitor-plague boards, which can have the tiny caps replaced by a smart kid with a soldering iron.

Defining E-Waste "Racism": Part 2 Fly-And-Lie

- Fly and Buy:   A trip to inspect used electronics, to be purchased for export.   The goal of the buyer is to make sure the load is at least 85% working and repairable after damage in shipping and elective upgrades.  See also "waste tourist".

- Fly and Lie:  A trip to inspect the exported electronics in the country which received them.   The goal is to  support a political agenda.  The "waste tourist" typically films only the 15% which was not reused, or films end-of-life product (generated on continent), emphasizing the most primitive aspects of the informal sector.

There is a double standard for "waste tourists"... people who fly over oceans to witness used electronics.  The waste tourists flying from North to South are called "watchdogs".  Those who fly from South to North are called "criminals".   People lose their life savings or go to jail based on how their trip is profiled.

When the WATCHDOG tourists fly to Africa, the working units aren't on the ground - they are in doctors offices, internet cafes, dormitories.  Admittedly, it's difficult to find the good-goods all in one place (though FIXERS manages to interview the repairpeople).  But the watchdog tourists take lots of film of the residue.  I felt like going ballistic when I previewed Fedele's E-Wasteland last week, as it used the 200,000 tons of import statistic from the 2011 UNEP studies, but seemed to ignore the rest of the UNEP study - the part that said 170,000 tons of it was reused and repaired, and most of the material at Agbogbloshie was generated by Africans after a decade of use.

We accept as normal in the West that 11% of brand new electronics sold are returned to the store as non-functional.  But when 15% of used goods brought to Africa fail, it means African businessmen are "criminals".   The math perplexes environmentalists, who can't seem to figure out that 85% of the imports are in doctors offices, internet cafes, and universities.  

To the African businesspeople, this is all about numbers.  Dollars, statistics, shipping costs, repair costs, distribution, and profit.  The higher the resale value, the greater the financial return.  These are not do-gooders, nor are they greedy, not any more than Bruce Springsteen is "greedy" for charging money for his concert in Dublin last week.  They have payrolls, they have family, they have risks, and no guarantee of rewards.


  • The African business people fly-and-buy to inspect product before they pay $10 each and another $10 to ship them.   Without them, the percentage of junk in loads could be much, much higher.

    This is not about some unscrupulous white "ewaste" recycler filling a boat and finding a beach in Africa to dump on.  Those "criminals" have never been found, because they don't exist.  

    Interpol labels the African Fly-and-Buy  "Waste Tourists" (Daily Telegraph, 2009) "criminals".  Journalists and watchdogs, like Greenpeace, Basel Action Network, NRDC, CBS 60 Minutes, and Europol  also fly to see the goods, after they are received.  These are also "white waste tourists".  They make their livings denigrating the African businessman's trade.  But unlike the African "waste tourist", all they have invested is their plane ticket - or in the case of Greenpeace a sabotaged (to be unrepairable) television and a GPS tracking device (which they got back).

    "Man held after tonnes of illegal e-waste are exported to Africa'Scavenger children' at risk from toxic fumes produced by broken equipment"
    The Independent headline, November 2009 

    Defining E-Waste "Racism": Part I "Negativity"

    - Overt Racism:  Purposeful, intended, blatant selection based primarily or partly on race.   
    Covert Racism:  Subtle or disguised racism, purposefully hidden or unacknowledged.
    Accidental Racism:  Someone who isn't racist at all finds out, despite fair-mindedness, they've accidentally (or subconsciously?) said/written/assumed something which someone else suspects as racist.   Normally they clarify or apologize. 
    "Excuse me, sir.  You've accidentally spilt champagne on my sneakers"
    "How dare you, sir, accuse me of purposefully pouring my drink on your shoes!" 
    Part 1 of 2: To prove it's not an ad hominem attack on opponents, I'm including examples when I've been suspected of racialism.   In part II, I focus on  people actually arrested for environmental crimes based on racial (or national) profiling, by well intentioned people, and the people who make their living making the same overseas flight, who profile themselves as environmental heroes.
    First things first.   I coined the phrase "accidental racist" in 2004, but I did not invent the reaction, from the southern hemisphere, to the images of children posed on smoking piles of garbage.  I'm the messenger.  If a bunch of someone elses call you a racist, and I'm defending your intentions, "accidental" is middle ground.

    In the news this week, Greece expelled one of their Olympic athletes for a "racist tweet".  AP opens the story as follows:   "Triple jumper Voula Papachristou was expelled from Greece's Olympic team Wednesday for her comments on Twitter mocking African immigrants and expressing support for a far-right party."  The tweet that went viral and caused the stir was a joke about "West Nile Virus" which was reported in Athens.  With so many African immigrants in Greece, Papachristou tweeted, the mosquitos and virus would enjoy some "home cooking" (soul food?). 

    The joke's not that bad, in my opinion.   But the "body of work" in other Papachristou tweets made this the last straw.  The Greek government felt this was either racist or covertly racist, and not something you want anywhere near the Olympics.  Ultimately, the ugly is in the eye of the "minority" beholder.

    The repercussions of an accusation of "racism" are kind of unique to caucasian nations.  I assume it's because of the USA's history with slavery and the process of ending segregation.  Europe inherited James Baldwin from us, and has quickly come to speed. "Racist" is an ultimate sin against society, a label of ignorance, callousness, and meanness.  It exists in Africa and Asia, and it's a huge issue in South America.. but the concept of "minority" as underdog is very different.   When passed from one white person to another, a Greek on Greek or American on UK insult that ruffles white feathers.  The story on the Greek expulsion was selected for The Drudge Report for a reason.

    In 2002, in China (with Lynn Rubinstein of NERC), I was on a tour with one of our translators from China's Guangzhou Electric Appliance Research Institute, Ms. Huang.  She had tip-toed up to the subject of the Basel Action Network, asking me what I thought of the BAN film, "Exporting Harm".  She seemed to be on guard, and kept asking me what I think.  I thought that it was a problem of "losing face", that it was a humiliating depiction of China, and that the bans on imports/exports were largely a result of that.  She seemed encouraged, and then said in her own, deferential way, that in her humble opinion, the film was a bit racist.   She furtively looked over her shoulder, almost instinctively, having said it... as if she'd used a bad word, and said that was only her, personal, view of it, and that she was not speaking on behalf of the Chinese government, etc, etc.

    That sentiment about the BAN films was repeated by Souley of Senegal, by Fred of Burkina Faso, and by others from Africa and the middle east.

    Me, too.   I was called a "racist" three times.   The first was by an  African buyer living in my house. It started out that I wanted $1 each for new laptop bags, he said he wanted them to help protect/cushion the computers.  In frustration he said all I care about is money not people.  I said "f*k you", and he got furious - and called me a racist.  He stomped out of my house and moved in for the night with my Cameroonian friend Yadji, who told me the buyer tried to convince him I was exploiting him.  We made up the next day. The African buyer said that when he told Yadji I was a racist, that Yadji told him point blank that there were two people in the world he trusted.   Yadji told him that one was Robin, and the other (pointing) was his cat.

    Another time I was complaining about a certain habit among certain buyers in certain Mediteranean countries to haggle for reimbursement rather than discount, i.e.  to haggle after a load of computers was received, to revisit prices after the sale.  It was a new mideast/African buyer I was engaged with, and the load had not yet shipped.  I remembered the episode with the laptop bag pricing and I was trying to be careful.  My wife is French Catalan,(also Mediterranean).... so I thought I was on safe ground alluding to Mediteranean negotiations and discounts after shipment.   The buyer said that when I speak of Mediteranean, knowing he's mid-Eastern, that I sounded a bit "racist".

    Last month, I wrote an extremely long and emotional piece about the drowning of my "African brother" from Cameroon, Yadji Moussa...   Someone I didn't know wrote a comment that my post was "covertly racist".  It was a shock, and came at a very bad time.

    Rereading my Yadji Moussa epitaph blog (because one tends to get friends epitaphs right), I could see how someone who studied racism in school could find a lot of things I'd written about my friend which were "racist".    He had come to the USA as a hero of mine, 15 years ago. I'd described him as an "African Gandhi" to many people (including his future wife).  When exposed to alcohol, he had left his family and had recently been kicked out of the homeless shelter, and we all knew this and I didn't want to sugarcoat it.  I had partnered, fired, hired, fired and rehired him, a fourth time, and he was making real strides.  This post was making it about "me", my feelings, at Yadji's expense and he was not here to defend himself.   It was an emotional post, and I took the post down for a couple of weeks, and worked on this film, still pics without commentary, which we played at Yadji's memorial service.

    Anyway, when the "covert racism" accusation slapped me, I had to park the blog and edit it.  Do I personally think of all Africans as loved ones with this deeply personal relationship?  Was it necessary to mention my bittersweet guilt, that he'd forgiven my call to the police (resulting in a year's imprisonment for drunk driving?).  In trying to cover up the anger, hope, disappointment, tragedy, and sadness, I'd captured my friend's decline from a disease in a way which someone actually could detect as a "white man's burden" essay.  I even had a clip of Shirley Temple dancing with Bojangles Robinson, and a link to an essay on Yir Yorant (which my dad had given me, and which I rejected, but it's mere presence in the article was a match for the accusation of racism).  What was I thinking?

    No one likes to be called a racist, or to be accused of "accidental racism".  And white liberal people who mean well hate it especially when it comes from another white liberal.  With that said, the post is better without many of the items I deleted from it.

    In Part 2, we will see actual people making a living by flying overseas to inspect used electronics.   One is identified in the press as an environmental hero, the other is profiled as an environmental criminal.

    We have to discuss it because of the actual, realprofiling of brown businesspeople as "waste tourists".  I compare two e-waste professionals, ones who "fly and buy" and those who "fly  and lie".   I have included actual articles in news magazines showing real brown people who were arrested, imprisoned, and falsely accused of exporting waste, and ask why the environmental press broadcast allegations as a form of public lynching of people who were proven - yes, proven by Basel Secretariat and UNEP investigation - to be innocent.   Not one of the the western media which reported on the "waste tourists" and "waste criminals" has reported any retraction or even reported on the finding of innocence of the people they sold papers by defining as a criminal.

    To me, this"e-waste export" policy must include this discussion of racial profiling.   

    A final note on Yadji, and his views on racism.  In our last conversation, about AA and about his future plans, how we would put together a plan for him to return to his family in Michigan, etc., he told me that his mantra had become to eliminate 'negativity'.  He said his contribution, at AA and to his own life, was that he'd discovered there was "too much negativity", that we are all surrounded by it, and it owns us and gives us excuses.  He said his problems stemmed from negativity.  He said that it's best to just accept the election of Obama as evidence of the end of racism, because whether it was or not, that the negativity about the racism was doing more harm than the racism.

    There is a negativity about African "waste tourists" which I write about in Part II.   And I'm forced to confront my own negativity, because there's nothing more negative to Americans and Europeans than an accusation of "racism".

    Ultimately this is about "environmental justice" and "unintended consequences".  It's in the history of how recycled red metals, grey iron ore, and other raw materials are regulated based on who touched them last.

    Shanghai Scrap Pictures: 10,000 Scrap TVs in a day

    That's a day in the life of reporter Adam Minter (who has recently finished his upcoming book, Wasted, at Bloomsberg Press).  The photo below is from one inland city.

    Adam verified with me (prior to his post) that this is not a certain inland city I know of (which does import CRTs, via inland routes from Viet Nam).  No, these are Chinese brand, Chinese generated televisions from Chinese homes.  Which isn't at all surprising when you have been to cities - cities in Asia, South America, and Africa - which are full of millions and millions and millions of people generating their own "e-waste".

    Some of you may remember one of my more shocking discoveries from my trip to South America last spring.  The old reuse market which used to buy USA used TVs was still selling used TVs - marks from China.  By commingling their own used ("waste") televisions in a container, China made the new good-enough LCDs they manufacture affordable in smaller, less-than-load samples.  It had nothing to do with China exploiting Peru environmental standards.

    I'll stop and let you cruise over to Shanghai Scrap to read Adam's post.  His conclusion was that the process he witnessed did a darn fine job of recycling the televisions.   China has developed a way to manage it's own e-scrap.  That's what we need everywhere that imports, exports, or grows their own electronics.   A ban on trade just doesn't make any sense at all.

    Four Elephant Fixers Films: IFIXIT.org, WR3A

    THE TWEET:  "4 films on E-Waste Recycling: IFIXIT, WR3A, Fedele, PBS. See all and you begin to see the Elephant in Africa's room"

    Kyle Wiens group, IFIXIT.org, and his professional blogger (I'm green with envy) Elizabeth Chamberlin presented on this Fixers film at Ismael's Electronics Recycling conference in Vegas.   The documentary is being produced with filmmakers at The Atlantic.

    WR3A had wanted to do something like this in 2007, when we had the grant from CEA which resulted in the 3 minute "Fair Trade Recycling" film (original version presented at CES Conference).  We had dozens of interviews filmed in different countries with hand-held flip cameras and amateur and below-amateur camera people.   Bad sound, no translation, poor lighting, rambling unedited footage can be seen at WR3A group, viddler.com.

    My next goal is to do a one-day event in California, have the day's take divided by geeks (perhaps from IFIXIT or Tech Soup) into two equal piles.  Then we'll RFID tag or geo-tag the items and send one batch to a California, no-intact unit E-Steward.  The other will go to Retroworks de Mexico, the womens coop which was profiled by PBS in 2010, and which is the stepping stone for the Memorial University / USC / WR3A / Peru grant ($469K) to do in depth interviews, secondary research, and film of the repair and reuse market.  The idea is to do an actual mass balance, and compare the environmental results when a group of struggling poor people, with the right tools and training, competes against a California shredding machine.

    I'm grateful to Basel Action Network for one thing.   I've got an immense passion for the value added by repair and reuse, the way poor people find money in the pockets of discarded clothing, the way they resew buttons on jeans.  I love the story (from an engineer at Umicore) of the teenage kid in Ghana who jailbreaked his IPhone when every Belgian tech had said it was impossible.   Because BAN.org made this trade between rich and poor "controversial", because they made it look horrific and toxic and exaggerated the relative risk of recycling compared to mining (the only other source of metals), now my passion is considered controversial enough to get university funding.

    What if I loved something that everyone agreed was a no-brainer?  Would we ever have gotten funding?

    Most of the world thinks repair and recycling is a no-brainer.  Thank goodness for the Orwellian, Joseph Conrad-ish portrayal of computer monitor refurbishing by our friends who invented the term "e-waste" to describe the purchase of less-than-flat display devices by Africans, Asians and Latinos.  I'm looking forward to seeing this Fixers Film in its entirety and comparing it to David Fedele's well meaning (but in my view, tunnel-visioned... simultaneously peeping and myopic) e-Wasteland.  That one is a very, very truthful account of a rather small percentage of the export business.  If you see it after watching Fixers, you'll be ready to see the 2009 Fair Trade Recycling Mexico PBS and Fair Trade Recycling videos to grasp the solution to the questions it poses.

    Then you'll understand my rage at Basel Action Network, which has devoted all their energy to banning this solution, via unsuccessful rejected interpretations of Annex IX of the Basel Convention (which they blatantly lied about having been accepted when they are rejected by Basel, in writing) and with the promotion of USA legislation to ban Fair Trade Recycling.

    Take time to enjoy the Fixers film first.   I will forward a FairTradeRecycling.org Factsheet on Mining and Repair Statistics if Elizabeth or Kyle is interested in any collective thought.  It's a three dimensional world, and if people are actually excited to visit Africa based on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, it doesn't make sense to be angry at the stereotypes it churns... so long as they actually DO finally visit and see the whole picture... trunk, tusks, blanket, and the wall.

    Join the unedited discussions and see more videos and articles at Facebook's Fair Trade Recycling group - join today, it's free.

    LA Times: Beyond 7 Billion People

    As long as this number, the world's population, keeps going up, recycling is going to be a very strong industry.  LA Times has a very strong article on "overpopulation", something which was the main focus of environmentalist angst in the 1970s (when I devoted my life to environmental karma yoga).

    This is really what is behind global warming, deforestation,, species extinction.  Even if 6 billion of us achieve perfect environmentalist nirvana understanding, the havoc that will be wreaked by the last billion, eating shark fin soup and endangered species platter, and throwing their copper away in the landfill, could easily doom us faster than the population of 3 billion with average environmental ethos.

    Recycling will be a good career as long as the population keeps growing, and the work created by human discards will never cease.   I wish I could think the same for rain forests, coral reefs, polar ice caps, and other habitats that are in the way of 14 billion people.

    David Fedele E-Wasteland My-alogue.

    David Fedele, like Jim of Seattle and Allen of New York, has now "been there".  He, himself, has witnessed "e-waste" on the ground in Agbogbloshie, Ghana.   He has made a film, E-Wasteland.

    "Every year, around 200.000 tonnes of second-hand and condemned electronic goods arrive in Ghana, West Africa."

    "Goods are mainly received from the "developed" world"

    "Salvaged metals are commonly exported out of Africa by multinational companies..."

    The sole statistic is real (apart from the "mainly" and "commonly").   About the 200,000 tons of second-hand electronic goods that arrive in Ghana, West Africa, we now have hard statistics.   A 2011 UNEP study, co-sponsored by the Basel Secretariat, examined the goods imported.  179 containerloads were hand-sorted in Lagos alone.

    They found that 70% work from the get-go, and another 15% are repaired.  That left 15% which will be recycled, perhaps from damage in shipping.  We can do better.

    The "wasteland" filmed by David Fedele in "E-Wasteland" was also researched.  Between 80-90% of the goods being burned there, the UNEP/Basel studies found, was used for a long time by Africans and "generated" in Africa.   Since less than a third of electronics that Africans use are brand new (they cannot afford to have Egyptian revolutions on IPads, so CRT monitors had to suffice), many of those at the dump may have been imported at some time.  But the sea containers do not go to Agbogbloshie... they go to the reuse shops.  The reuse shops have a percentage damaged in shipping (11% of brand new Wal-Mart sales in the USA are store returns) and a percentage they take back from African consumers as trade ins for a slightly newer used electronic device.

    If you apply the actual statistics to David Fedele's quotes, which he stands behind (quite forcefully in an email I'd like to share but modesty forbids), you'd find that 200,000 tons of used electronics are imported, and 170,000 tons of those 200,000 tons are reused and repaired.  [POSTSCRIPT:  In Mr. Fedele's defense, he did reach back and reopened the dialogue by email, despite my lashing in my third email to him..  He's got a conscience and means well, and probably didn't know what a ferocious, passionate, pro-recycling, pro-export bastard he was dealing with]

    But all 20 minutes of the film is poor black faces burning wire in fires.  They also burn refrigerators, tires, other items which millions of Africans own and eventually throw away at the dump.

    David explained to me when I contacted him by email that he wasn't comfortable using statistics, and he thought that the silent imagery, without commentary, conveyed the truth.

    Much like the truth conveyed if you film cadavers - and nothing, nothing but cadavers - in discussing a hospital.   Piles and piles of burning cadavers, in a film about a hospital which saves 85% of its patients.  Who would ever be caught donating to such a hospital?

    I get frustrated, and I wrote too much to Mr. Fedele, trying to explain the damage done by depicting Africans solely as lonely wire burning beasts at landfills. I was wanting to find a way to tell something about the Fixers (ifixit.org film) or WR3A's crude videos on Viddler.com of geeks of color making the best jobs they can find making good enough product for  their nations growing internet.  My experience vs. My experience.   Like a "fly and buy" trip from an African or Chinese buyer, we wear our experience like a shirt, making our respective fashion statements amongst the untravelled masses.

    David says,
    "Then you go on with your own self-absorbed rambling. "
    Guilty as charged.  That's just the problem, exactly.  I'm a long winded, self-absorbed, pedantic, businessman protecting my life choice (trading with people in a continent I lived in and loved).   I'm probably the worst advocate these poor sots in Accra and Angola and Cameroun and Lagos and Cairo could wind up with.   I'm an awful filmmaker and not a very good writer, my friends plead with me to hire an editor.   I go on and on, diarrhea of the keyboard.

    The problem is that these African friends of mine, Wahab, Hamdy, Souleymane, Miguel, and their compatriots Jinex and Fung in South America and Asia, have so little choices of people to do business with.  The E-Stewards don't return their calls.  And Film makers like David Fedele make it very simple and powerful not to do so... just like Pieter Hugo's savage portrayal of exotic wire burning.

    It's not a dialogue, it's a my-alogue.  David's film, Robin's blog.     The sun orbits our compassion.

    What I do at the Beach: Masters in Capitalism

    This doesn't really fit in a blog.   And like many of my college papers, it was written at one sitting (I used a typewriter with white out and being able to re-write a paragraph was rare). Sometimes I do this and park it for months, and eventually publish a "robin masterpiece" like Monkeys Running the Environmental Zoo.  Sometimes I do it in one sitting at a place like Motherboard.TV and an editor there helps me to produce "Why We Should Export Our Electronic 'Waste' To China and Africa.", which becomes subject of a documentary on European cable news.

    I haven't reread this at all, so buyer beware.  Here's my attempt at relational relativity applied to Marxism and development economics.   It was too windy at the beach. (pun intended).

    Cleaning Up in Capitalism:  Relative Aspirational Pyramids
    by Robin Ingenthron, July 21 2012.  Written in Le Barcares, France.

    In journalism, they say you need to know your audience.  I'm obviously not a journalist, and don't think I'm competing in "free content" for the news writing community.  But I think there are a lot of works I admire where the author (e.g. de Tocqueville) probably didn't exactly "know his (future) audience".

    I'm also re-reading Herman Hesse's Siddhartha.  In chapter one, he's an arrogantly admirable son of a brahmin (SOB).
    The word Siddhartha is made up of two words in the Sanskrit language, siddha (achieved) + artha (meaning or wealth), which together means "he who has found meaning (of existence)" or "he who has attained his goals".[3] 

    Bad Statistics: The Jumping Off Point for E-Waste

    Well, since EPA and Basel Secretariat won't defend themselves from the bully in Seattle, it seems to fall on me to defend sanity.   Should poor people be allowed to accept donations from, and do business, with well meaning rich people?   My answer is yes.   HR2284 says no, and makes that opinion law.

    Using Halloway (post yesterday) as a jumping off point, let's look at all the assumptions for the case banning trade in used electronics between rich nations and poor.

    They keep saying 80-90% of electronics exported are burned in horrific condtions.
    " ..it has been widely reported that 90 percent of the USA's e-waste ends up in either China or Nigeria—a figure that appears to originate from an estimate made by Jim Puckett, Director of the Basel Action Network. "
    It has been widely reported, indeed.   The figure "appears to originate" from Basel Action Network.  Basel Action Network credits the statistic from a 2002 interview they did with my buddy Mike at DMC.   My buddy Mike says, via this blog, that he was including ALL exports - clean baled steel, demanufactured copper, aluminum, plastic - everything that comes out of electronics.  And he meant exports to Europe (printed circuit boards) as well.

    The actual studies with actual data show an imperfect but rational marketplace.  85% of used electronics imported into Africa are working or repaired.  The other statistic is that MOST Africans can only afford a used device - for now.  China has a plan to change that.

    African business people can't afford to pay $10 to ship an item worth $3.52 in scrap.   BAN says that a good unit would pay for the transport of the bad units... but that's only if the African Geek is willing to donate his share of the profits to disposing YOUR junk.  Meaning he would have to charge you, or lose his money.  The more rational step is for the African to be very careful about picking and choosing items he can repair and reuse.

    - The goods from the USA are mostly good.
    - The bads at the dump are mostly generated over there (after decades of reuse).
    - The mostly good were mostly purchased at thrift and second hand shops in the USA/EU
    - China and other rapidly-ermerging nations are a new source of cheap and "gently used" goods

    The question for China and USA is, how do we make money selling into this market?  Do we resell our used cars and electronics for their best value, giving us an incentive to take care of them?  Or do we just withdraw, to keep our consciences shiny and our Goodwills and Salvation Armies beyond the reproach of export markets?  Because THAT's where the Africans (and Haitians, and South Americans) buy from, the used goods marketplaces in USA and Europe.  And the number of "rich" people (used goods owners) doubles each year - and they are cropping up everywhere.

    Salvation Army and Goodwill have competition.  Not just from for-profits like Savers and eBay.  The used goods market is growing as the world economy grows.   New consumers are created as wifi and electric cable wrangles its way into the slums, and as slumdogs become middle class, they generate their own used display devices, laptops, and cell phones.  The cup of used goods runneth over.  But the solution is not to ban the poorest from getting the leftovers.

    ARSTechnica Reprints Discredited EWaste Propaganda?

    ARSTechnica is a good blog for Geeks.  It was therefore a shock to see them feature a rehashed "E-Waste Export" diatribe, written by James Holloway of the Open University.

    In his article, Toxic trade: why junk electronics should be big business, Holloway correctly identifies the importance of the rare earth metals, including gold, which are lost when used electronics are disposed of in the landfill.  Back in the 1990s, when I was Recycling Director for the Massachusetts DEP, I made much the same case.   The pollution, toxics, energy, and rain forest loss from mining reddish metals, from places like the OK Tedi Copper Mine on the isle of Papua New Guinea, represent a much deeper environmental priority than recycling green wine bottles and old packaging.

    He quotes our friends at StEP in Europe (where I'm now typing) about the enormous waste represented by lost circuit boards, with the gold (and tantalum, and silver, and copper... I would add) if a computer is tossed into a burning pile of waste.
    At current rates of production, $16 billion (or 320 tons) in gold and $5 billion (7500 tons) in silver are put into media tablets, smartphones, computers, and other devices annually. With growth in demand for smartphones and media tablets showing little sign of diminishing in the next few years, the flow of gold and silver from deposit to waste facilities is only likely to accelerate.
    So far, a good chestnut on the importance of recycling and preserving rare earth metals.  But Mr. Halloway then twists the very study he highlights - a study I linked to here when WR3A / Fair Trade Recycling representatives were with StEP at the Pan-African Conference on E-Waste in Nairobi in March.

    STEP and UNEP and WR3A all presented papers concluding that hand-disassembly was good.  Amazingly, most of the people at the conference in Africa agreed that geeks and recyclers prefer loads of used electronics from rich people to loads of used electronics collected from poor people.

    Photo: Living dangerously in Middlebury VermontThe jobs represented by labor in Africa and China can be good jobs.  And hand-disassembly is a good process, according to the actual articles Mr. Halloway pretends to have read.  Rare earth metals (e.g. hard drive magnets) which are lost in European and USA shredders can find new lives in new hard drives when the drive is dismantled.  And the UNEP study showed that the reuse and repair jobs from used electronics imports into countries like Ghana represent 100-fold more jobs and employment than the "scrap boys" who dismantle used computers at Agbogloshie or Lagos dumps.

    The negatives about waste shown by anti-export groups at those dumps, in study after study, is found to primarily originate from users in Africa... just as the "e-waste" in China mostly comes from Chinese consumers.   85% of the imported electronics, UNEP found, were reused and repaired in Ghana and Nigeria.  This put the 2009 "study" (rather an opinion piece) by Interpol in a new light.  The Interpol report, which Halloway cites, assumed that 80-90% of the used electronics purchased by Africans were burned in primitive conditions (accepting the Basel Action Network propaganda), and that primitive Africans stupidly burn CRT monitors rather than test them for reuse for, say, internet revolutions in African countries like Libya, Tunisia and Egypt.  

    Halloway does the same thing as the Interpol author - using passive voice and a completely eroneous and discredited statistic - to build his case around.
    " ..it has been widely reported that 90 percent of the USA's e-waste ends up in either China or Nigeria—a figure that appears to originate from an estimate made by Jim Puckett, Director of the Basel Action Network. "
    The Interpol report found that Africans were the ones stationed in Europe, buying the used electronics.  And allow me to applaud with a hearty "DUH!"  Geeks of Color like Wahab in Ghana, Hamdy in Egypt, Souleymane in Senegal, and Miguel in Angola can't afford to pay thousands of dollars in shipping and customs duties to import computers for burning.  They either "fly and buy" (inspecting and hand-picking goods prior to export) or rely on Africans studying abroad to test the goods before they are shipped.  The Interpol report stunningly labelled these Africans as "organized crime".  The report stalled at Interpol and was not translated, it's now considered a TinTin era "white man's burden" paper, completely discredited by UNEP and other people who sat down and talked to the "geeks of color"... people Halloway didn't have time to meet before writing his rehash of covertly racist propaganda on ARsTechnica.

    Just Arrived in Dublin, Ireland, Hot on the Trail

    My apologies for posts of the past week or two.  Interrupted vacations, cross-country car trips, unplanned funerals, and the transition of our VP, Colin Davis, who's starting his own ethical apple orchard business in Vermont.  I'm sitting now with an expresso in Dublin, Ireland, where I'll be tracking the e-waste exports, meeting criminal Africans paying thousands of euros to stuff Pentium 4 computers into containers to burn them in villages, in order to poison African children, all to save the shredding costs of WEEE which would otherwise be charged to Irish citizens.

    Those silly, ruthless African geeks.  Cost of a container from Dublin to Ghana is about $9000.  If they put 900 computer monitors in there, that's $10 each just to ship, $3.52 worth of copper.   Stewards say they strategically buy just enough good ones to fill the container with 80% waste, not quite breaking even in the process.  Pictures of scrap boys shift the burden of proof - the exporters are presumed guilty.

    I do have some budding posts in the drafts folder.  But there's vacation and family to concentrate on too.

    The Role of Shame in Toothpaste Marketing

    This morning, on the road, I brushed my teeth with a travel toothbrush.  I had forgotten my toothpaste.  As I brushed, I could taste the toothpaste from past poor-rinsing.  I wondered how much fluoride I still had in the bristles, and whether the fluoride could be delivered without toothpaste more efficiently (as I brushed).

    I'm a recycler.

    (warning - this is one of those introverted self-effacing used toothbrush blog entries).

    Marketing Confirmation Bias for E-Waste

    Here's the simple thing about electronics recycling.  If you are an electronics recycler, which would you rather unload into your building today?

    1)  Two trailers of gently used rich people stuff (high repair and reuse value)
    2)  One trailer of gently used rich people stuff, and one trailer of obsolete "ewaste"
    3)  Two trailers of obsolete "ewaste"?

    Does the answer to this question depend on your race, your language, or your identity?  Or is it a universal obvious fact that we prefer items of more value?

    No tech or geek I know cares about the "nationality" of a device.  A Chinese geek will prefer a P4 to a P2.  An African geek, working diligently on repairing a P3 for hours, will quickly abandon his invested time if a newer laptop is set on the desk.   Everyone prefers gently used rich people stuff.

    If this is boring and obvious, then why is 100% of the dialog about banning poor people from importing rich peoples stuff?  Why are the African e-waste PACE project assuming "no imports"?

    Dictators and Planned Obsolescence.

    It's normal that BAN has a confirmation bias about the plight of poor kids who have toxics in their blood.  Even if the toxics from leaded gasoline or gold mining accounts for far more poisoning, any poisoning of any child seems unacceptable.  And if something is completely unacceptable, we will have a confirmation bias (ban exports) towards anything that appears to move the other direction.  They see the import glass as 20% empty.

    But those of us who have lived in the developing world and have friends there see that geekdom is the opposite of the "resource curse", and that the jobs creasted overseas by the trailerloads of gently used rich people stuff are far better for Africans than other jobs available.  So our bias is that the import glass is 80% full.

    I'm as guilty of confirmation bias as any human, I'm going to get a high from UNEP studies which confirm my 2005 hypothesis.   But I have no source of funding to promote my bias.

    BAN got another rich company, Sims, to join their E-Steward campaign.   The origin is California, where counties were disqualifying Sims bids, and in particular, California Universities... which are the biggest source of trailerloads of gently used rich people tech there are.

    Running rich people tech through a shredder means that the African and Asian and South American e-waste recyclers will get more trailers of obsolete junk, low profit material, as a percentage.  We have demonstrated in Retroworks de Mexico that they are able to do that work, that it's possible to do by hand.  But if they can do it for the domestic junk, why can't they do it for the 20% of bad stuff in the export trailer?  If they can buy tested working, and then properly recycle the unit 5 years later when it stops working, why can't they properly recycle it if they cannot repair it, and keep the money - the big money - they would make on it if they can?

    Banning exports of used electronics is a marketing campaign which touches on the basest biases that Europeans and Americans have.   Finding a small piece of electronics, upgraded from a working unit or replaced from a unit sent for repair, is an obvious example of confirmation bias.  If you have set up an E-Stewards program based on no exports, or you've built a shredder to manage California material, or you are selling brand new product and don't want "market cannibalization" competition with your own used product, or you are a dictator who doesn't want tweets and youtube to be widely accessible, then you can all agree, can't you, that the tiny capacitor replaced by a geek of color makes the entire trailerload illegal waste?

    And you can pool your resources to market over and over again, pictures of dirty, poor, sad children... whose parents will unload two trailerloads of material today at their African e-waste processing plant.

    E-Wasted Decade: List of 10 Winners, Losers

    The Conclusion of the last "E-Waste" Decade sees a number of Dynasties created by the stories, real and imagined, underplayed and exaggerated.  Who came out ahead and who lost?

    1.  Basel Action Network:  Winner

    BAN.org went from being a very obscure NGO working on an even more obscure treaty.  They had a very small budget for travel, and no budget for science.  But despite their meager assets, they manage to craft a story that was widely accepted as fact, and in the process became recognized as important experts in the field of waste, recycling,  pollution and international development.  They tried to "capitalize" on their success by branding a certification program, which they named "E-Stewards".  Mainly it is insurance that if you pay for it, they won't attack you.  But it was successful and BAN created a dynasty.

    2.:  Journalists:  Winners

    Jerry Powell and company had a magazine, Resource Recycling, which was competing with Recycling Today, Waste News, Scrap, Recycling International, Waste Age, Waste Dynamics, etc.  The company used the controversy surrounding E-Waste to build a huge conference with built-in controversy and word-of-mouth sales. Being one of the first to recognize the hot-buttons and controversy BAN.org was churning, Resource Recycling was able to turn that into money, but was not the only one.   Other trade publications sold more "data wiping" and "shredding equipment" ads which were not likely to be paid for by Taiwanese reuse factories.  Other journalists, from CBS 60 Minutes to Businessweek to Audabon magazine were able to write "gotcha" stories with a uniquely exotic flavor.  Recycling exports are bad was a "man bites dog" shark attack story that just kept on giving.   So journalists are winners - financially.

    The Most Hazardous of E-Waste

    It has the metals, the flame retardants, all the chemical composition of the E-Waste you have read about.  Eight pounds of lead in the glass, phosphors, copper and other non-ferrous metals.

    In addition, it has live current running through it, posing risk of electric shock.  Yet many seek to call it a "commodity", not governed by e-waste regulations.

    This device even emits signals intended to change the way you behave.  It will try to alter your voting and purchasing patterns.  It has been blamed for an epidemic of obesity.

    The television in your living room, your bedroom, or kitchen... have you looked at it closely?  At what point is it the most dangerous of e-waste?  While it's lividly emitting sound and signals in your living room, or when it's safely unplugged in your garage?

    Does the Sun Orbit Our Compassion?

    Guiyu, China is a polluted place.  Part of it is polluted by the textile industry.  But these burn-houses for circuit boards are real, and no one is saying they are good.  Not much "e-waste" recycling is done by the river, there is no CRT business in Guiyu, and the sophistication of the chip sorting and reuse business really deserves more credit.   But there is pollution there, enough pollution for children to have high levels of lead in their blood samples.  Without question, we can see it.  Guiyu deserves our help.

    My fair trade recycling campaign is not about making excuses for the sale of circuit boards to places like Guiyu.  What we propose is that trade can be used as a lever to incentivize reforms.   Just as we lowered the price of SKD monitors sold to Malaysia in return for ISO14001 certification and glass-to-glass recycling of residuals, we believe that Guiyu's economics can be used to negotiate improvements to the standards for children.  This is a math problem.

    My African Neighbors, 1985
    Agbogbloshie, Ghana is really the same story.   There's no denying that its sad to see a kid busting a CRT tube with a rock.  I'm not sure why someone does that... there's not much inside a CRT tube but a metal shadow mask.  But I've seen it on film, and even if the TV was  used in Ghana for years, I'm not heartless.  Lead in children's blood bothers me a lot.

    My fair trade recycling campaign is not intended to make excuses to send "toxics along for the ride" to Ghana or Nigeria.   It's intended to reform the trade, so that people keep their jobs, their repair jobs, their reuse jobs - even their recycling jobs, if we eliminate the burning. But most of all, it's about observing the constellation of the recycling trade more closely, listening, doing Q-sort, and not selling the conclusion that the sun orbits the earth.

    2012: InterCon Takes On Basel Action Network

    Word came in Friday's E-Scrap News that Intercon Solutions is suing Basel Action Network - for defamation.

    E-Stewards asked to Co-Defame (Herbert Block 1950)
    BAN's "E-Steward" business model looks to many people like selling insurance against their own defamation campaign.  Whether Intercon Solutions wins, loses, or settles, we should note that they are not alone.  Unfortunately, most of the people being tarred as "primitives", "polluters", "criminals" and "exporters" don't have the wherewithal to sue Basel Action Network.

    Eleven months ago, BAN's accusations vs. Intercon Solutions of Chicago Heights domineered the "e-scrap" and "e-waste" news.   My company had traded in a fair amount of "focus materials" with Intercon - CRT Tubes.   We knew that Intercon was passing the CRT Glass Test, which Basel Action Network agreed with us (in 2004) is the #1 indicator of bad behavior.  People called here to warn me that maybe the CRT tubes were going to China.  It was mathematically ridiculous.

    Unfortunately, BAN seemed to have forgotten that lesson.   Rather than do Intercon the courtesy of saying that they passed 80/20 rules for focus material, BAN made it all about a single mysterious container which they photographed and tracked from the Intercon yard to a destination in Hong Kong.   BAN focused on whether a literally anecdotal percentage of Intercon's material was sold to - a person of color.  The story was not about what the material was - cell phones for repair?  laptop batteries?  LCDs? Nor about the capability of the person buying it.   It was about whether the containerload originated at Intercon, and what nationality the buyers were.  The only important thing was whether 1% of something was sold to a person in China.

    Three Interviews with Yadji Moussa about Cameroon, Africa, and "e-waste"

    These are pretty unprofessional, unedited, videos interviewing our departed friend from Cameroon, Yadji Moussa.   I'm working today on getting some photos together for the service on Friday.  Yadji's kids, Innah and Adam, will be coming from Michigan.

    The service will be held at the Memorial Baptist Church, between Pleasant St. and Court St (Rt 7) near the Middlebury green.    Friday, July 6, 6:45PM