What NGOs Got Right, Got Wrong About E-Waste Exports: Part 1

It is challenging to take 10 years of blogs about ethical recycling, many written in passion, often written in haste, and channel a message which is nuanced, and not just to be brushed away as "denial".  I come from the same generation, post hippy, late 70s early 80s protester.  I shared the same deep sense of alarm from Jacques Cousteau, Jane Goodall, Rachael Carlson, etc., about the population bomb, and the finite nature of world resources.  We read Amory Lovins, Barry Commoner.  Jim Puckett, Barbara Kyle, Ted Smith, Shena Davis, and so many others in our 50s and early 60s grew up with the same Siddhartha Gita Vedanta Black Elk Speaks mantras, and spreading like 1860s prospectors to save parts of the world, we sharpened our arrows and powdered our muskets.

The General Mining Act of 1872 was my target.  I hand wrote letters to my Arkansas Senators, Bumpers and Pryor, in 1980, telling them it was unfair to unborn generations to subsidize the pollution of hard rock mining.  The EPA's Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act were focused like a laser on nonferrous smelters, hitting recycled and secondary smelters hardest (not precisely the same thing btw) but also affecting primary mining and smelting.   The most polluting industry was the first to move offshore, and I shared the alarm of my fellow environmentalists in our 20s and 30s over "externalizing" pollution.

World's 10 Fastest Growing Copper Mining Projects (mining.com)

Copper, Lead, Silver, Tin and Gold mining in places like Borneo, Papua New Guinea, Zambia and Peru seemed like an end-run around our generation's attempt to clean up America's virgin mining to throwaway culture.  And the places where those industries moved to were in many ways a social nightmare. Idi Amin, Mobutu Seko Sede, and dozens of other dictators pocketed "registration fees" for these mines and set up foreign bank accounts, giving rise to the alarms of "Resource Curse".

We were alarmed by the same things.  We protested the same things.  And Africa's "mining map" is growing.

China is charging Africa's mining landscape - 2006 - 2015 maps

Harry Wu recently passed away.  It was thanks to Wu that Americans and Europeans knew about Maos "cultural revolution", which arrested academics for as little as rolling their eyes at Communist Party rallies.  Harry Wu taught us, in the late 1980s, that cheap Chinese toys and tools were often products of slave labor.  We learned about death squads in El Salvador, USA puppet governments like Allende's in Chile.  Globalism was happening, it seemed, for all the wrong reasons.

So what happened.  How did I become what Jim Puckett calls "the biggest thorn" in his side?  We shared so many of the same experiences and same premises.

This is an opening blog to explain what happened, and what BAN and other protest-and-alarm-fueled NGOs have correctly and what they are blind to.  I went to live in Africa for 30 months in the 1980s, and it changed me forever.  But what changed me isn't well represented by poor African children, or poor Chinese children, or halloween language of  "e-waste hell" and "child labor" and "shantytown" and "rice paddy" images.  What changed me are individual people, individual friends, individual rivals, individual students.

Do the actual people in emerging markets serve as nothing more than the NGO's wallpaper?  What divides Fair Trade Recycling from the traditional anti-globalist NGOs of the early 80s is Q-method.  We talk to people overseas.  We get translators, we visit, and we listen.  So we were the first to find out that one NGO in particular was blatantly falsifying data, to the point where it merits a defamation lawsuit.  I loved, adored my family in the Ozarks, but racism is a bridge too far.

Fear of others.


Poverty porn.

The tactic of scare-mongering is everywhere, and journalists are in on it.  It is easier to make a story exciting and alarming than it is to actually inform.  It's not the datajournalism, it's the photography.  It's not the steak, it's the sizzle.  If it bleeds, it leads.  Journalists and NGOs share the same great and noble mantras of the 1960s and 70s that I do.  They want to save the planet, and basically do what an older generation referred to as "earn their place in heaven".  We didn't call it "to sit beside and hold the hand of Jesus", our reward was more nirvana, more transcendant.

But like the pitfalls of the snake handlers in the Ozarks, we took ourselves too seriously and stopped measuring.

Time to watch again the Hans Rosling TED Talks.    Faith is gravity, but truth is light.  We share the purpose, the gravity, the traction of making the world better for current and future generations.  But Basel Action Network has been selling a product that doesn't work in the low low light of ignorance, and when they are confronted with data and information, they have begun shooting in the dark.

Part II:  What they got right

MIT Ethics

It's approaching ten days since I contacted MIT Senseable City Lab.


#Ewastetracking Project by MIT and NGO Discovers Analog Television (exists) in Pakistan

According to the opening page of Massachusetts Institute of Technologies Senseability City Lab's expose on second hand electronics, transboundary movement demonstrates likely environmental harm.

A joint project between the Basel Action Network (BAN) and the MIT Senseable City Lab has led to the discovery of previously unknown international electronic waste routes departing from the United States.
Printer, and LCD and CRT monitors were embedded with GPS trackers capable of remotely reporting their location from overseas locations. These trackers were then delivered to recyclers and charities around the country. 65 of the first 200 trackers deilvered as part of the Monitour/e-Trash Transparency Project went offshore, mostly to Asia. 
On-the-ground investigations in Asia by BAN produced a clearer picture of these trade routes. Results of this study can be found here on this site in graphic form and will also be released in a series of reports by BAN. These can be found at: www.ban.org/trash-transparency. 
While legitimate e-waste recycling helps reduce landfill contamination and raw material extraction, the export of hazardous electronic waste is most often illegal trade under the Basel Convention and moreover, the management of toxic electronic waste in the informal sector damages human health and the environment. 
The Monitour/e-Trash Transparency Project demonstrates how relatively new technology can generate unique data needed by civil society, law enforcement and enterprises to better track what until now have been hidden flows. Since the time of our experiment, the UN Organization on Drugs and Crime has confirmed that the Mong Cai border is a primary corridor for e-waste flowing from the US and EU into China, part of an estimated US $3.75 billion market for illegal e-waste. 
Learn more about e-waste tracking here: Video.

"On the ground investigations in Asia by BAN produced a clearer picture of these trade routes."  Really, MIT?  Just how clear?  Analog or high definition?  Seriously, this is from Media Lab of all places?

As I showed last week, the screen shots of the MIT's tracking project are difficult to see at proper resolution; you can't zoom in.  Instead, you must copy the longitude and latitude and paste it into google maps, or rely on whoever is writing written descriptions of the sites on MIT's website.

Then you find places like the Hafeez Computer Center in Faisalabad, Pakistan.  It's near the center of a dense city, blocks away from one of Pakistan's largest universities.  It is a long way from the port.  Screenshot below.

We are writing to MIT to offer to assist them in interpreting several tracking devices locations.  In particular, I'm focusing on CRT devices, which are governed by USA EPA law.  That law does not ban export for reuse, or even export for recycling, but requires that export to be declared and investigated by EPA prior to export.

The reason for EPA's restrictions stem largely from the Basel Action Network (MIT's "joint partner") declarations in 2002 and 2005 that the "vast majority" of CRTs are not recycled, but are dumped overseas to avoid high USA recycling costs. Overseas, BAN announced, the CRTs were most likely going to be beaten by children with hammers to remove "valuable copper".  It is certainly true that CRTs are the most expensive type of electronic waste to recycle, and it's true that any which are diverted for continued use represent an avoided fee.  It's also true that working display devices have been in high demand for reuse and repair markets.  Billions of people owe their "teledensity" (mass media, internet, etc.) to used and rebuilt CRTs sourced from wealthy nations.

How Little We Recyclers Even Care What Happens

Wow.  What a powerful emotional connection - to no one. Because embargoing trade proves how much you care. Don't exchange with anyone, Bodhisattva.   I thought I'd share the opening salvo of logic from KCTS9's "The Circuit: Tracking America's Electronic Waste".

Sure.  If I send work to the Chicas Bravas Womens Co-op at Retroworks de Mexico, the fact that the electronics crossed the border means I don't care about them.  I don't care about the people I send my children to visit, I don't care about the people whose godson comes live with me for a year.

I don't care about the former Attorney General from Burkina Faso, who I housed for months while a contract was put on his life by President Blaise Compere.  I don't care about the Egyptians, who hosted my family and stayed at my house, because I sold them computers.  I must not care about the investors who are trying to build a $45M state of the art printer recycling factory in Hong Kong, to supply Apple, Sony, and LG with recycled content for new devices.  I surely don't care about the technicians in Ghana who fed and housed me for 3 weeks, or the scrap men at Agbogbloshie who still WhatsApp or call me once a week.

Save The American Children! Shocking Expose on USA's Car Repair Market

Just sayin'...

The point is obviously that:

1. Abandoned or slow moving "waste" is more persistent and easily photographed
2. Manufactured goods kept for part sales is different from shredding, different business
3. Sometimes business owners die or get in trouble or screw up
4. Outliers in an industry should not be used by photojournalists to racially profile geographies
5. No one knows, really, what's going on without data journalism.

Hopefully Germans don't see this video and decide to boycott car sales to Florida.  Fortunately, there are no brown children close up photos to trigger an NGO fundraising campaign.

Real Time reporting on BAN Report - Dell Reconnect Fallacy

Click BELOW for Real Time Analysis Blog on Controversial NGO + MIT Allegations #trackingewaste.

- NGO False Claims Act Rebuttal
- Methodology / Fallacy in Sampling Data
- False Claims vs. Goodwill Industries, Dell ReConnect
EStewards Accusations vs. Total Reclaim / Seattle
- Alternative Explanations for "conclusions" reached by NGO
- Research leads, links to vetted data.

Unlike normal blogs, this one is being updated with information about the "scandal" of alleged e-waste exports to Hong Kong and other countries, made to support NGO's claim that it's paid e-Stewards certification, or national legislation, would cure environmental problems overseas without resulting in collateral damage (impugning reuse and refurbishment operations, boycotting geeks of color, sacrificing tradeable commodities covered under WTO "cores" law, racial profiling of recycling operations, false attribution of Basel Convention standards Annex IX B1110, fallacy in sampling data, sampling bias, etc.).  The chief counterpoints to this blog (the story we are debating) can be found at the links below.


BAN Web page (just going online) http://www.ban.org/trash-transparency

MIT SenseAble City http://senseable.mit.edu/monitour

Like every one of these blogs, the views here are only my own and do not represent my company, any research or journalists I cooperate with, or the not-for-profit Fair Trade Recycling group (WR3A). The views are put forth in belief in debate, rebuttal, and defense of a trade which has received exaggerated and hyperbolized accusations, often against Emerging Market Tech Sector businesses who have little ability to respond to "profiles" created in the Western Press.

For ten years the Blog has told everyone that the NGO was making up the "80% Export" e-scrap myth out of whole cloth, and knew it was misleading reputable journalists in an "e-waste hoax" campaign that benefited the NGO financially.   For ten years we have documented that the NGO uses photos of poor people, implying it benefits them, but never spending a single penny to assist or aid them in any way.  For ten years this blog has alerted Interpol, EPA, trade associations, university researchers, interns, legislators and journalists of misleading and incomplete information being generated about the import and export of second-hand and secondary market commodities.

I do not know how long I will update this piece on the NGO's accusations against Goodwill Industries and certified and non-certified electronics recycling companies, and the overseas markets they may or may not trade with.  My passion for this is driven by victims in developing and emerging markets who are a) recycling material their own country traded in to them in upgrade, b) refurbishing newer second hand equipment imported from the USA and other "rich" nations, and c) general disgust as an environmentalist that organizations seeking to benefit from "strategic metals retention" or "planned obsolescence" or "protecting shredding investments" may be funding a propaganda campaign against the people I called (over ten years ago) "Geeks of Color".


NGO Needle in Haystack #3: Logic of BAN on Interracial Marriage

Re-Release of Paused Blog #3
"Well Robin, you might have a nice biracial marriage.  I'm just worried about your future children, they seem to me to be the victims.  Don't you worry they'll be rejected by both races and won't fit in anywhere?  And the fact your marriage works out doesn't mean that most interracial marriages will". 
My first fiance (1980) was non-white, and I heard that kind of crap where I grew up in the Ozarks.  I vividly remember arguments about the Loving vs. Virginia Supreme Court decision, which ruled Virginia law against interracial marriages unconstitutional. It was completely illogical, driven by ignorance and fear.  There were no facts in the argument against my engagement announcement.  It was completely based on conjecture and speculation.

The NGO crusade against the overseas Tech and Repair Sector, or "Repair and Overhaul" (R and O) not only reminds me of the segregation logic, but also smacks of environmental malpractice.    For several years, people in the Recycling community have said to me:
"Robin, I would prefer that you not export anything for reuse.  Even if you know the people that you are selling displays to - and I don't doubt they are good people - the fact is that I've read 80% of the waste is burned by children under primitive conditions."
Now the people who said the quote at the top about interracial marriage were good, church going people (family).  They really were.  Really, really, good people.  And the people who said the second quote, too, are outstanding environmentalists.  But the fact is that, in the second case, for too long I walked around satisified that people trusted ME to export but believed that most of the export market was bad.  And I knew the SKD markets and RandO was misrepresented.  I did try harder, I'm sure, than others to screen the exports.  But the racist imagery just bugs the hell out of me, and we have to do something about it.  Like ask, "what the hell is MIT's Senseable Media Lab doing hooking up with Basel Action Network??  Didn't they read the Travis Reed Miller thesis?

From the banner atop the NGO's web page (screenshot), we have the 1970s Prince Nico Mbarga white Magnavox TV.  No doubt imported used, originally.  And absolutely no doubt it was imported more than a decade before the photo was taken.  If the NGO planted a GPS tracker in that old white TV today, the chances of it winding up in Agbogbloshie or Hong Kong are zero.

But the propaganda continues, despite the fallacy and illogic.  I could run a photo of the Lovings in their 70s and imply that their aging was a result of the marriage, and it would make as much sense as running a photo of a TV in Agbogbloshie now which was imported in 1977.

Will PBS repeat the mistake it made in Frontline?

@KCTS9 Here's what the NGO should actually be saying

NGO Needle In Haystack Part 2: Methodology is "Base Rate Fallacy" Bingo

Part 2 in response to the Basel Action Network and E-Stewards public disparagement of Hong Kong LCD display refurbishing market.

This is being edited now that the PBS Report is available on live internet. Additions will be highlighted in Yellow, deletions in Gray.  

FAIR USE - Response to Criticism
We do not know exactly what Total Reclaim sent to Hong Kong, or the condition that it was in.  But it sure wasn't a console TV, a microwave, a copy machine, CRT monitor, or printer.

The methodology used by the NGO behind the story appears intended to prop up misinformation about refurbish and repair markets overseas.  The NGOs know that if they put a tracking device in a CRT television, it will wind up domestically recycled.  But by planting it in a smaller device with high repair potential and high reuse demand, they have once again ensured "collateral damage" - this time to their own Top Shelf E-Steward.

It is not an accident that the #trackingewaste demonstration caught one of the best-in-class Recyclers. And it's no mystery what would likely find its way back to the cradle of LCD manufacturing, warranty takeback, refurbishing and repair.  The highest percentage of display device engineers on the planet live in a triangle between Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Kunming, China, and if you know what someone will buy from that area, and what someone would track if they wanted to land there, you can guarantee a BINGO.  The game is rigged to obscure 2 key facts:

- Total Reclaim exported almost nothing, as a percentage of Seattle e-Waste.
- Hong Kong imports next to nothing, as a percentage of intact Seattle e-Waste

Here are 373 Companies which sell PARTS and COMPONENTS of digital displays in the area.

NGO Plants Needle in Haystack, Part 1: New Outrageous Claims in #EwasteGate

The news breaking today is that a Seattle NGO, Basel Action Network, is releasing a documentary with PBS about their "watchdog" effort to sabotage LCDs (making them non-repairable) and then track them overseas with GPS transponders.  The first company they have "outed" is Total Reclaim, an E-Steward certified company in their own home of Seattle Washington.

Article at E-Scrap News

Does this sound familiar?  You take electronics which someone wants to reuse, cut wires, and turn it in for reuse and repair.   Someone buys it for repair, and then you accuse them of having shipped it for "primitive" recycling.


BBC Reporter RAPHAEL ROWE cut a wire (thinking export for repair is illegal - should have read Basel Convention Annex IX, B1110 on export for repair of CRT monitors and TVs).

Context:  The Seattle Recycler received about 28.5M lbs of TVs, printers, computers, cell phones - as well as car seats, x-ray machines, and UPS.  The NGO doesn't say that the mass balance is off.  Of the 28.5M lbs, about 28M lbs of garbage-in came back out as baled steel, plastic, non-ferrous metal, and CRT cullet.  What the NGO's methodology is to find a device NOT in demand in the USA (CRTs in 2012 Benson case, smaller flat LCDs this year) but in high demand with overseas repair.  They take one that looks nice, open it and sabotage a wire, then place a tracking device.  When the Recycler has a staff person do sort-for-repair, the GPS is tracked, and the NGO implies that 28 million pounds are in question.

Had the NGO put its GPS tracking device in a random printer or CRT television or Pentium 2 computer, no one has ANYdoubt that Total Reclaim would have long recycled it.  This test is designed to disguise the GPS device in the biggest cherry, the patients who we believe could be saved from the recycling creamatorium.  Then, the NGO uses racist language to describe the "primitive" repair people who make a living by cherry picking luxury clients "waste" for the "good enough" market.

If BAN had put the tracker in a Pentium 2, a printer, a CRT television, virtually anything (aka random sample), they know perfectly well the Recycler would have scrapped it.  They chose the device they did because it has high demand and repair markets overseas, and they tracked it to a place a few miles from where the device was probably originally made... a place with more expertise in the device than anywhere in the world.

Remember, the reason NGO BAN told everyone to be very concerned about the export for repair market is that they told the press 80% was not repaired, but was dumped, in "Digital Dump" or "reuse excuse" language.  But it turned out they were making that up.  And their website still has the same garbage.

#1 Finding of Agbogbloshie Report

A look at Old Fadama / Agbogbloshie 3 months before the mass razing (across river)

As I finalize our 100 page report from 2015's investigation of Agbogbloshie, there is one overwhelming finding which is simple and brutal and efficient to explain.  The most obvious candidates a year ago were things like "this is not remote wetlands outside the city".   Or "this is automobile scrap wire, not electronics".  Or even, "there are not thousands of children here, there are 25 guys ages 14-34".  The tonnage estimate alone seemed like the obvious finding... it's in pounds per day, not thousands of tons per day.

But #1 Lesson?

No, the number one finding is that NGOs and journalists and photojournalists did not even pretend to do any data research.  The number one finding is that data (number of households with electricity, TV, phones, internet) about consumption and generation in Ghana and other West Africa locations has been available for decades.  World Bank and IMF have done major studies to support infrastructure and power grid needs in greater Accra, Kumasi, Tamale, Tema and other cities.

There was absolutely no need to travel to Ghana to predict what we'd see there.  

The UNU and other NGO reports had no baseline data for Africa electronics ownership. 

And yet they had it in spades for EU electronics ownership, so they clearly understood it.  The charts showing "flows" of used WEEE and scrap around the world are calculated from generation by EU businesses and households, based on ownership in previous 2 decades.   But they didn't get the same data for AFRICAN businesses and households ownership over same 2 decades!

No baseline data.   As in "this paper gets an F".  An NGO cannot possibly determine that 80% of imports are waste or "too quickly disposed" by looking at a dump.  It's like making health care recommendations based on a trip to the cemetery.  You can photograph a westerner getting a haircut in a foreign city, but that doesn't mean the hair outside the barbershop came from illegal OECD waste.  Even if you purposefully sabotage a device and sneak it to a foreign refurbisher - or send a European Rapunzel with exceedingly long hair to the African barber shop - that demonstration does not prove anything.  If I say "80% of the apples sold in Ghana had razor blades hidden in them" and then I hide a razor blade in an apple and send it to Ghana and say "see"?  That does nothing to support the 80%.  But cutting a wire in a TV and selling it to Joe Benson has been presented as a "smoking gun" that most of the trade is sham recycling, supported by photos of a fairly innocuous mount of city generated waste.  Neither of these is quantitative, and neither shows causality.

So the methodology sucked, but unlike the hair cutting analogy, there is actual data on Ghana business and household ownership... We know how much hair is there to be cut, how much must be generated with 0 tourist hair.

Fair Trade Recycling has been trying to make this point for over a decade, but too many editors and journalists told us "but I've seen the pictures".   Of children, of wide white eyes on sad black faces with a familiar looking junk VCR in the background.

Photojournalism trumped datajournalism.

So for our report, we flew in, we visited the required places, we filmed interviews both in English and local languages.  But the fact is that you could have known this was a hoax just by asking "how would a metropolis of 4 million people who have had 20 TV stations for 20 years manage to:

  1. acquire enough TVs to explain the level of consumer ownership documented in the city 20 years ago, and 
  2. dispose of the eventual electronic scrap the city generated?
If C is waste photographed at Agbogbloshie, and D is appliances in productive use by Africans, C + D = A (bad shipments )+ B (good shipments).   If you find C, you haven't yet determined that A is 80% of imports.  But what you can do is say that 215,000 tons per year is the total of A + B.  If 80% of that is bad, then how do we arrive at D - households with devices in use - which is publicly available data?

In the absence of a control group (arguably, like India and China which ban import of second hand goods but still generate scrap), baseline data is "Go" in the Monopoly Game of Agbogbloshie.

It turns out that using NGOs own figures, without ever flying to Accra, you know they are incompetent or lying, because you cannot reach (D) the number of devices in use, or the teledensity, without a higher percentage of B (good shipments).  And if you have D for a decade ago, you cannot have had D without producing C (waste at Agbogbloshie) because even EU generates more C per D than that.

Oh, and guess what?  By doing actual research before and after our investigation, we found out that the Asian electronics manufacturers all have this data for the purpose of replacing second hand goods sales with a) brand new appliances, or b) refurbished (to new in box standards) appliances, the SKDs they made for decades for the Asian market.

Banana peels in the bottom of a monkey cage do not prove that people are illegally dumping banana peels at the Zoo.  If you suspect that 80% of the banana peels at the zoo were dumped by OECD recyclers seeking to avoid composting costs, you don't just go directly to the News Outlets and announce it as "fact", and if you do, editors need to make sure it isn't repeated as fact.