In the English-speaking world, the waste reduction hierarchy of reduce, reuse and recycle, or “the three Rs,” has long been touted as the resource conservation path to organizations and individuals should follow. Entrepreneurs in developing nations who refurbish and remarket computers and mobile phones can point to their reuse business model as falling squarely within this hierarchy. In many cases, they are importing computers, phones and other equipment considered obsolete in OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) nations into places like West Africa and preparing them for sale to people who cannot afford new devices.
However, the business model of these entrepreneurs is not praised universally. Organizations such as the Basel Action Network (BAN), based in Seattle, say the containers being shipped into nations such as Nigeria, Burkina Faso or Ghana are essentially “waste” (even hazardous waste, considering the amounts of lead or heavy metals that may be included), and as such their transboundary shipment violates international conventions on waste handling between OECD and non-OECD countries.
The conflicting points of view remain a source of contention within the recycling world, as BAN and like-minded organizations press for legal action to curb the practice, while importers in places such as Ghana seek help and understanding within OECD nations to have their voices heard.
Fulfilling a need
Emanuel Eric Prempeh Nyataletey is a 30-year-old software engineering student who was born in Ghana and currently lives near Atlanta in the U.S. He says the technicians who import and repair electronic items from Europe and North America play a vital role in the spread of information technology in West Africa.
“In a country where most households make less than $2,000 per year, a $500 brand new computer or cellphone or TV is a luxury most people can only dream of,” Nyataletey says. “The benefit of used electronics touches every aspect of our lives in Ghana, and I do not see how my country can develop and be competitive in the region and around the world without these gadgets,” he comments.
In June 2014, used electronics buyer Joe Benson was sentenced to 16 months in prison by a United Kingdom court after accepting a plea bargain pertaining to shipping “e-waste” from the U.K. to several non-OECD countries.
Robin Ingenthron of the Middlebury, Vermont-based Fair Trade Recycling says Benson is the victim of unclear legal definitions and a desire by an advocacy group and its media allies for a conviction designed to help deter future transactions.
Ingenthron also says importers such as Benson realize no benefit in shipping nonworking items overseas—the incentive lies in sending saleable merchandise.
“Benson’s company, BJ Electronics, was registered as a ‘reuse’ business with the U.K. Environmental Agency,” says Ingenthron. “He had records of hundreds of pickups from U.K. collection sites, where he sent his truck to ‘cherry pick’ loads that would otherwise go to [an electronics shredding] plant. He paid those sites typically 10 British pounds sterling per unit. Benson also had records of returning units to the same sites if he brought them to his shop and they didn’t pass muster. It was completely free for him to drop the bad ones back. He had no incentive to pay for bad units or to pay to ship them overseas.”
Benson, a U.K. resident born in Nigeria, faced investigation and prosecution in the U.K. for five years before pleading guilty in June 2014 to illegal transboundary shipments of “e-waste.”
Ingenthron says the plea bargain Benson accepted followed news coverage by U.K. television stations that relied on activist group Greenpeace as a source, portraying “e-waste dumping” as opposed to any portrayal of the repair and reuse market.
“Benson pleaded innocent originally and maintains the shipments were not ‘waste,’” Ingenthron says. “He was represented by a public magistrate. Benson is a good TV repairman but does not read or write and has never been to school. My thesis is that he was poorly represented and accepted the plea for a sentencing reduction to 16 months from 66 months,” he adds.
Manufacturers are making low-cost consumer electronics for the West African market, but Nyataletey says many of those devices have not earned a good reputation. “New electronics made for the African market from China are usually cheaply made and do not last,” he says. “When I visit Ghana, my friends prefer to exchange my personal (used) cellphone that I bought in the U.S. for a new one I may have bought from a Chinese store for them,” he adds.
Refurbished goods also are sought by the education sector in Ghana, Nyataletey says. “Most schools and other organizations receive used electronics as donations because they can’t afford to buy new computers. Without these donations, many schools are not able to teach simple computer skills or access the Internet,” he remarks.
Computer and mobile phone repair technicians have become both widespread and respected in his native Ghana, Nyateletey says. “Many young men and women are employed [by the sector] because they can repair electronics,” he comments. “So many families I personally know have worked hard as repair technicians to improve their living standards and to send their kids to school. The repair technician is one of the highly respected jobs in Ghana, and it’s a lucrative job too, as almost every household has used electronics that need fixing once in a while.”
Nyateletey says, “Used electronics make our lives in Ghana better and help us connect to the rest of the world.”
Opponents of the transboundary shipment of used electronics, however, see flaws in this business model that can involve worker health and safety and the final disposition of items that may contain lead or potentially toxic heavy metals.
Since releasing its documentary “Exporting Harm” in 2001, BAN has continued to seek government and private-sector action against unsafe and environmentally unsound electronics recycling practices.
“Exporting Harm,” which focuses in part on massive, unsafe dismantling operations in Guiyu, China, brought attention to unseemly recycling practices and helped lead to the creation of several environmental, health and safety (EHS) certification programs for electronics recyclers (including one operated by BAN itself).
Much of the initial attention focused on the unsafe dismantling of cathode ray tube (CRT) monitors, which are high in lead content. (See the feature “Abandonment Issues” in the September 2014 issue of Recycling Today.)
Although CRTs continue to make up part of the electronic scrap stream, it is a form of technology that is largely being replaced by liquid crystal displays (LCDs) and other types of screens. While that may seem like welcome news for those concerned about the safety and health aspects of transboundary electronics shipments, LCD devices use cold cathode fluorescent lamps (CCFLs) to illuminate their screens, and these devices contain mercury, which also is a hazardous material. However, the mercury content in these devices is relatively small compared with the amount of lead in CRT devices.
The technology shift, however, has not seemed to change BAN’s stance on the international shipping of used electronics. The group’s most recent documentary, “E-Waste Tragedy,” portrays the status of end-of-life products, such as mobile phones in Hong Kong or washing machines in Spain, and considers these part of the cross-border trade that must be halted.
While “E-Waste Tragedy” revisits Guiyu, the film also includes several segments focusing on West Africa and its role as a destination for used electronics, particularly from nearby Europe.
The film refers to repair operations and the sale of used goods but also portrays stockpiles of obsolete electronics and implies that these are unrepairable, unwanted items that have been abandoned by the people who brought them into the country.
At the Electronics Recycling Asia conference in Singapore in November 2014, Jim Puckett of BAN screened “E-Waste Tragedy” and also delivered a presentation. “This is a global problem; it is all of our problem,” Puckett said to Electronics Recycling Asia conference attendees.
Puckett urged governments around the world to enforce the transboundary export regulations contained in the Basel Convention and for the consumer electronics industry to design products without toxic substances.
Keeping the door open
Robin Ingenthron of American Retroworks Inc. and Goodpoint Recycling, Middlebury, Vermont, became aware of the global used and repaired electronics market in large part from serving customers in Mexico and establishing Retroworks de Mexico there.
Subsequently, Ingenthron has helped create an organization called Fair Trade Recycling (www.wr3a.org, formerly the WR3A), which advocates for keeping repair and reuse markets in place in developing nations, including the West Africa region.
Ingenthron says he firmly believes the role of used electronics in West Africa as portrayed by Nyataletey is accurate and that punishing or restricting the practice will cause more harm than good.
Unfortunately, punishment has become a reality for one West African importer. Joe Benson, a United Kingdom resident born in Nigeria faced investigation and prosecution in the U.K. for more than five years before pleading guilty in 2014 to illegal transboundary shipments of “e-waste.”
While defending Benson and the benefits of the reuse market in West Africa, Ingenthron also acknowledges many issues remain in the region regarding the disposal of electronic items that are no longer wanted, even by IT-hungry West Africans. “The worst practice is burning wire,” he comments.
However, the lack of a proper solid waste or scrap recycling infrastructure cannot be used to condemn secondhand goods only, says Ingenthron. “The social cost of refusing mass communication devices that bring the Internet and television to people until or unless a nation has an infrastructure in place is well-documented by groups such as UNCTAD (the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development),” Ingenthron says. “Even BAN dismisses the argument against export for reuse based on eventual discard, since even brand new product cannot pass that test.”
A speech delivered at the 2013 Fair Trade Recycling Summit in the United States by Fahiri Somda, a former chief prosecutor and attorney general of Burkina Faso, pointed to the resource conservation aspects of deploying reused equipment compared to importing low-priced new units.
“Is the extraction of mineral resources such as gold less polluting than the import and recycling of electronic equipment?” Somda asked in his presentation.
Usable secondhand items, he added, are “overabundant in the OECD states” and are in perfect working order, yet are unavailable “not because these materials are at the end of their useful lives but because [the original owners] want to be on top of progress in this technology.”
Ingenthron says the reuse sector has suffered from an image that it dumps “e-waste” into West Africa. However, with the help in part from two recent industry studies (as well as from the perceived injustice of the Benson case), he says 2015 may be the year when the sector improves its public perception.
The studies Ingenthron refers to were conducted in part to counteract the summary findings of the 2002 54-page “Exporting Harm” report, which stated, “Millions of pounds of electronic waste from obsolete computers and TVs are being generated in the U.S. each year, and huge amounts—an estimated 50 percent to 80 percent collected for recycling—are being exported.” BAN cites “informed recycling industry sources” as the basis for the report’s figures.
The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries Inc. (ISRI), Washington, has been among the trade groups researching the accuracy of that figure. “A report released by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Materials Systems Laboratory and the U.S. National Center for Electronics Recycling (NCER) in 2013 indicates that more than 90 percent of used electronics collected for recycling within the U.S. remain in the U.S. for processing and are not exported,” according to ISRI.
Ingenthron says searches of 279 export containers bearing used electronics found that from 85 percent to 93 percent of the units being shipped are in working order.
He offers a medical industry analogy to summarize his beliefs: “Used electronics are not waste, and labelling all used electronics as ‘e-waste’ is like toe-tagging every patient in the hospital as a cadaver, based on a diagnosis of eventual mortality,” Ingenthron says.
The author is editor of Recycling Today and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. A version of this article first appeared in the March/April issue of Recycling Today Global Edition, a sister publication of Recycling Today.