My reaction to the film The E-Waste Tragedy

Nov 18, 2014

You can tell how you'll end your day by how you started it

 African proverb.

This proverb literally means that most of the time, one's day will be determined by how much planning one has done from the start of the day. However, my first day at the 2014 E-Scrap Conference did not end as I planned.

The day started in meetings with recyclers from around the country and all over the world. Most were very friendly and enthusiastic about their recycling work. As Robin Ingenthron (founder of Fair Trade Recycling) introduced me to colleagues that in the hallway to the registration desks, he kept raising one of the most important topics I've been trying, over the past months, to find answers to - The case of Joe “Hurricane” Benson. Joe Benson was born in Nigeria, and owned a business “BJ Electronics” based in the UK.  BJ Electronics had a reuse license with the UK Environmental Agency, which Mr. Benson used to trade in used electronics, selling to importers from his home country. Benson had traded used electronics in West Africa for over 20 years, until he was accused five years ago of dumping “e-waste” for “primitive” recycling.

It was very interesting to me to hear all the different views on this case throughout the day, as I tried to have the attendees sign a petition to free Mr. Benson, who was sentenced to jail last summer for exporting the used electronics to Nigeria from the UK. To find possible answers to my questions I decided to attend a film presentation, sponsored by BAN (Basel Action Network) and presented by Jim Puckett. The film, by Cosima Dannoritzer, was titled “The E-Waste Tragedy”. This film became the highlight of my day that I did not plan for.  Having grown up a few blocks from the neighborhood of Agbogbloshie, Ghana, I was asked to write down my reactions to the film.

  1.  Time

The film starts with Mr. Michael Anane (an environmental activist in Ghana) at the Accra junkyard known as Agbogbloshie.  Mr. Anane is collecting scrap plastics from old CRT computer monitors that bear property tags of some organizations in the UK. Anane takes these broken plastic materials to their original owners in the UK and demands to know why they ended up in Accra Ghana.

As much as I admire Mr Michael Anane's courage, I see a glaring problem. By flying to the UK with these “scrap plastics” from old CRT monitors that bear the property tags of some government agencies in the UK, he had by-passed about 20 years of the products’ life. Those 20 years represent the most important segment of the reuse-recycle chain in Ghana. One can easily see that the plastic materials that Mr. Anane collected at the dump site are more than ten years older than those being imported today, based on the design of the monitors. I was stunned by the obvious - these monitors had been in use, there in Ghana, for more than a decade.  This fact is confirmed in the film itself, by one of the police commissioners, who tells Anane that these CRT monitors had been sent for recycling at least 20 years ago. The companies sold them for export, and the importer who shipped them to Ghana, are no longer even in business.

This means that these CRT monitors have been in Ghana for at least this same period of time, and over 20 years they have been used and repaired over and over again until they finally end up in the dump at Agbogbloshie. Therefore, the best thing Mr. Michael Anane could have done was to investigate how these monitors get to the dump site,and which African consumer had brought them there? Who was the last user? Just using the asset tags on these monitors to determine their first owners is not enough.

After Mr. Michael Anane's unsuccessful attempt to find any good explanations or answers to his questions about the CRT scrap plastic covers, the film takes us on a journey to uncover an “international illegal recycling trade”. It is alleged that these companies have sold tons of “e-waste” to developing countries in Africa, Asia and other parts of the world. The main reason they are involved in this illegal trade, the film claims, is for fast money- getting paid twice. First by the government or individuals to recycle these used electronics, and second by the importers from Africa and elsewhere in the developing world. However, the film is again silent on the African persons and African companies that they claim import “e-waste” in order to dump them in sites such as Agbogbloshie. Once again, by failing to ask questions of Africans (like Mr. Benson), the documentary misses another very important part of the chain. Why not ask the Africans who are allegedly bringing “e-waste” to places like Agbogbloshie? It is more than a disappointment that the film is silent on this very important segment. The film tells us of the economic benefit to the EU recyclers but fails to show any economic benefit to the third world importers who pay for the materials, pay for the transport, pay for the labor and pay for the customs duties to participate in this allegedly “illegal scheme”. We need an explanation of why the African buyers would waste all their own money to avoid EU recycling costs.  If they had looked for that answer, they might have met some interesting people, and gotten a better idea of what the City of Accra is like.

2. Place

The film also claims that container loads of “e-waste” is shipped via numerous ports throughout the EU and suggested one sure way to stop this illegal trade.

The suggestion? Test every used electronic to be shipped to make sure that these items do not head straight to dump sites in Africa. Well, the film crew witnessed such a test being done in Germany. The film shows customs officers in a ship yard in Hamburg. Just as suggested, a ship container full of used large screen CRT TVs was opened and all of these TVs were tested. Based on what this film has said from the start, one would assume in the best circumstances that most of these CRT TVs would be found not working or unrepairable.

The result? 100% and I mean all of the CRT TVs in the container were fully functional.  So you see, no proof so far that used electronics shipped to Africa are “e-waste”.  The film also shows an African electronics buyer in Hong Kong who clearly states that all of the used electronics they buy from Hong Kong are 95% good working items and that anything less than that is unacceptable. A very well respected investigative journalist in Ghana, Mr. Anas also confirms in the video that 95% of the imported used electronics are reused. So where does the “e-waste” imported from Europe and the US to be dumped in Africa go? I'm not sure but I'm very sure that this film does not show any hard evidence that the next container load of used electronics bound for Africa will be delivered straight to dump sites in Lagos, Dahome, Lome or Accra. 

And finally, the film omits any mention of the UN-funded 2010 study of 279 sea containers - which were seized in Lagos and Accra and tested by Swiss and African independent researchers.  That study found 91% reuse.  A better usage rate than brand new product after electrostatic discharge, shipping damage, and warranty returns.

3.  Motive

One of the panelists answering questions after the showing this evening also made a very disturbing statement that I think uncovers a lot in this “e-waste” debate. He said “Our resources (precious metals) disappear in these primitive recycling areas. These people are keeping our metals and we need to stop them.”

My response is, why not let Africans have the metal? Why shouldn't the developing world keep what the rest of the world mined from our land in the first place? After all most of the copper, gold, and diamond mines are in the developing world. This statement tempts me to think that this struggle could also be for natural resources and not some “good Samaritan” gesture towards poor Africans.

Growing up in Ghana as a young man I was very fascinated by electronic gadgets and their magic. So I spent a lot of time learning to fix used electronics. As a result I have met so many respected repair guys or “Geeks of Color” if you wish. These are the people who prolong the life span of some of the computers, cell phone, TVs etc that you throw away. Without these guys, so many household, schools, businesses in Africa will lack basic gadgets like computers, TVs, and cell phones for everyday life. The average annual household income in Ghana is $1,327, yet most Africans have facebook accounts and cell phones. With this income level, very few Ghanaians are able to afford brand new electronics. How did we achieve higher rates of electronic use than the USA had in the 1990s?  It’s not thanks to the non-profits, which make millions selling images of poor African and Asian recyclers.  We are connected to the world thanks to imported used electronics and the Tinkerers, Fixers, Technicians, Nerds and Geeks of Color who finance the trade. Thanks to the mysteriously missing African businesses, 95% of Ghanaians can afford to buy these “magic” gadgets that our lives have come to depend on.  With the widely available repair services, these families (including mine) are able to afford and maintain these electronics for a very long time. These are the people whose voices are not heard in this film and many others circulating in the western media.

I've waited for a long time to see this corrected but I've realized that its time Africa starts telling its own story rather than wait for someone else to do it for us. 

This post was submitted by Emmanuel E.P Nyaletey.

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