Criminal Negligence?

By Josh Lepawsky, Joshua Goldstein, and Yvan Schulz

UNEP Waste Crime reportOn 12 May 2015 the United Nations Environmental Program announced the release of a new report called Waste Crime – Waste Risks. Among the topics covered by the report is the global problem of discarded electronics or ‘e-waste’. After reading the report with a focus on the sections pertinent to our research interests, we feel compelled as scholars to highlight serious shortcomings of the report. For convenience, we identify three types of such shortcomings of claims made in the report:

  1. Those that are falsifiable on their own terms.
  2. Those that are founded on weak or non-existent evidence.
  3. Those that are built on self-referential foundations of weak evidence.

In most instances, these three types of shortcomings operate together. Taken together they are, in our assessment, evidence of “corner-cutting techniques” (Rekdal, 2014: 1) that detach statements from their original sources and, in so doing, make those statements “look more solid and trustworthy” (Rekdal, 2014: 4) than they actually are. Statements derived from such corner-cutting are dangerous: they circulate as knowledge deemed to be trustworthy — or even more powerfully — as ‘common’ knowledge, despite their shaky foundations.

Modest Witnesses and Built Facts

The UNEP’s Waste Crime – Waste Risks report is geared toward providing answers to and recommendations about illicit global flows of waste. E-waste features prominently in the report. In controversies about discarded electronics (‘e-waste’) statements of fact are at issue.

Readers already familiar with the field of Science and Technology Studies (STS) will understand what we mean when we say facts are built. Facts are assembled by the work of people in conjunction with instruments, materials, and know-how. A house is built. So, too, is a fact. Despite decades of work in STS, it is still controversial to refer to facts as built since doing so seems to detract from the reality of facts. But no one would mistake describing a house as built as a claim that it is fake (for a highly readable primer on these ideas, see the Chapter 1 of feminist STS scholar Charis Thompson’s excellent book, Making Parents).

When e-waste controversies unfold in terms of true vs. false facts, the structure of the fight very quickly enters a cul-de-sac similar to public ‘debates’ about global warming. Such debates tend to circle endlessly between proponents and deniers, all the while helping to defer genuine action by enhancing uncertainty. But these debates can only take shape because of an unrealistic understanding of how science (and technology) work. Science and technology don’t provide certainty. They provide more or less trustworthy knowledge and infrastructure. A key innovation of scientific practice (traceable to a 17th Century debate between Robert Boyle and Thomas Hobbes) is the invention of a standardized way to report traceable chains of references that establish factual knowledge. This invention is a literary technique that we now take for granted (because it is taught and practiced over and over again) as the reporting of experimental design in peer-reviewed journal articles. This invention is one of the key reasons scientific knowledge is trustworthy: in principle, should one doubt the trustworthiness of the facts, one can follow the chain of references back to see how this or that fact was established as such.

To escape the cul-de-sac of debates framed in terms of truth and certainty versus falsity and uncertainty, it would help to change the frame. By analogy, think of the trustworthiness of buildings. Instead of asking whether a statement offered as a fact is true or not, ask: How well or badly built is the fact in question? The shift in framing is conceptual and practical. When the storms of controversy are brewing it helps to know which is the more trustworthy building to take shelter in. Or, just as a badly built bridge might support the crossing of a few pedestrians equipped with little more than cameras and video equipment, it behooves an organization like INTERPOL to be much more cautious about inspecting the building of that bridge before commanding its heavy enforcement infrastructure to cross it, lest it risk collapse (a real risk with its cringe-worthy ‘Project Eden‘).

Fact Checking the Fact Builders

Orange Beach, FL, September 22, 2004-- The effects of Hurricane Ivan are shown along the shore in Orange Beach.

Poorly built facts won’t stand up to the storms of controversy. Orange Beach, FL after Hurricane Ivan 22 September 2004. Source: FEMA/Public Domain.

In what follows, we trace a set of facts issued in UNEP’s Waste Crime report and the press release that accompanied it. Following each claim, we provide an assessment of the evidence on which it is founded.

Claim 1

“Up to 90 per cent of the world’s electronic waste, worth nearly US $19 billion, is illegally traded or dumped each year, according to a report released today by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)” (Source: UNEP Press Release, 2015, Paragraph 1).

Our Assessment

The claim that up to 90 percent of electronic waste is illegally traded or dumped each year is not actually made in the Waste Crime report. The claim that is made there is that “the amount of e-waste properly recycled and disposed of ranges between 10 to 40 per cent according to different estimates” (Waste Crime, p. 7). The range of “10 to 40 per cent” implies that 60-90 per cent of e-waste is improperly disposed of. The UNEP press release forgoes the range in favor of the upper limit of 90 per cent and it is this figure that is picked up in subsequent media reports (e.g., The Guardian), thus bolstering the dominant e-waste storyline about illegal trade and dumping.

Waste Crime attributes the figure of 10 to 40 per cent to another UN report produced by United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime: Transnational Organized Crime in East Asia and the Pacific | A Threat Assessment. This report uses an average of 25 per cent for proper recycling of electronics and 75 per cent for improper handling (see in particular p. 109-110, and Footnote 39). It relies on the following sources to reach these figures (see p. 110, Footnote 39):

The figure of US$19 billion is a calculation based on another claim in the press release that INTERPOL “estimates the price of a tonne of e-waste at around US $500” (Source: UNEP Press Release:, Paragraph 4). The $500 per tonne figure is referred to explicitly in Waste Crime (p. 7) and attributed there to INTERPOL (2009). While attributed to a reputable source (INTERPOL, 2009), the figure of $500 per tonne is an almost meaningless metric. The figure cannot distinguish between single product types that commonly comprise e-waste shipments. For example, 1 tonne of cathode-ray tube (CRT) monitors will not have the same value as 1 tonne of mobile phones (or any other conceivable single type of e-waste). Nor can the figure account for the huge price difference between reuse-value and scrap-value. For example, a used, non-repairable, and obsolete CRT might have a scrap value of $2.50 whereas a repairable one might have a value of $50 in markets for used goods. Given that reuse can fetch prices 20 times higher than scrap (e.g., $50 versus $2.50), any figure not based on assumptions that makes this distinction strains credibility as reasonable estimates of actual trade.

More importantly, as we discuss in more detail in a forthcoming post, there is evidence in this citation chain of a self-referential loop of weak evidence. We call this self-referential chain the BAN-UN-INTERPOL Loop or BUNTERPOL for short (readers with knowledge of German may hear a pun in this acronym. While not originally intended, the pun works).

Claim 2

“Each year, the electronic industry – one of the world’s largest and fastest growing – generates up to 41 million tonnes of e-waste from goods such as computers and smart phones. Forecasts say that figure may reach 50 million tonnes already by 2017” (Source: UNEP Press Release, Paragraph 2).

Our Assessment

The UN Waste Crime report states, “The United Nations University has estimated that up to 41.8 million metric tonnes of e-waste was generated in 2014, with only part of that amount being legally recycled and recovered (Baldé et al. 2015; UNODC 2013)” (see Waste Crime, p. 32). The Baldé et al. reference is a United Nations University report, The Global E-waste Monitor. The UNODC reference is UN Transnational Organized Crime report already referred to in the previous assessment of claims. The UNODC report states that, “[a]ccording to the UNEP, between 30 and 50 million tons of e-waste is generated every year” (UNODC, p. 109). The UNEP source attributed for the figure of 30-50 million tonnes is:

  • UNEP 2010. UNEP Environmental Alert Bulletin 2010. “E-waste the hidden side of IT equipment manufacturing and use”.

Though dated in the UNODC bibliography as 2010, the Hidden Side of IT document is actually an earlier UN document:

This link between UNODC and Schwarzner et al. is a critical one. It is the source for the floating statement in the e-waste literature that 20-50 million tonnes of e-waste is generated worldwide/globally every year. The Schwarzner et al. (2005) document provides no methodology for how it came to these figures, but among its listed sources are BAN’s Exporting Harm and BAN’s Mobile Toxic Waste. Reaching the Schwarzner et al. UN report is a crucial finding because it cites BAN’s earliest reports (e.g., Exporting Harm, published by BAN in 2002 three years before Schwarzner et al’s pamphlet). The Schwarzner et al. report also uses photos credited to BAN and depicts a map of e-waste recycling routes that Schwarzner et al. attribute to multiple data sources that, save for the World Bank, are all listed as contributors to BAN’s Exporting Harm (Greenpeace, Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, Toxic Link India, and SCOPE). Versions of this map appear in a Greenpeace website which attributes the map to UNEP. As one of us wrote in a recent paper

Over the last decade research on e-waste has exploded. Trade press and environmental NGOs (ENGOs) were among the earliest to draw attention to e-waste as an emerging problem. Arensman (2000), writing for Electronic Business, alerted original equipment manufacturers to the recycling of e-waste as an emerging issue for industry. His article, along with BAN’s Exporting Harm (BAN 2002) would later be cited in a UN pamphlet (Schwarzner et al. 2005). The UN pamphlet and the BAN report subsequently became common citations in the grey and scholarly e-waste literature as sources for key figures that circulate in support of the dominant activist, academic, and news media representations of e-waste: e-waste is the fastest growing segment of the overall waste stream at 3–5% per annum; global production of e-waste is estimated to be between 20 and 50 million tonnes, and between 50 and 80% of e-waste is exported from the USA rather than being recycled domestically. (Lepawsky 2015)

The role that this citation chain plays in the broader e-waste discourse is discussed in more detail by Lepawsky (here and here). The significance to our assessment is that this chain is an important instance of a self-referential loop between BAN and the UN. The chain composes the ‘BUN’ of the BUNTERPOL Loop, a self-referential circle that would complete the BUNTERPOL Loop in 2009 with the release of INTERPOL’s Electronic Waste and Organised Crime report discussed above.

Claim 3

“Ghana and Nigeria are among the largest recipients in West Africa”( Source: UNEP Press Release, Paragraph 12).

Our Assessment

Just after referencing Grant and Oteng-Ababio (2012), the UNEP Waste Crime report states, “[a]bout 40 000 tonnes of e-waste is imported into Ghana annually” [p. 48]. This is a very curious claim. It ignores the findings of other reports also done under the auspices of UNEP and its Ewaste Africa Project. As one of us has recently written of those reports:

A study in Ghana (Amoyaw-Osei et al. 2011) using data from the Ghana Customs, Excise and Prevention Services, interviews, field visits, surveys and stakeholder workshops states that:

imports into Ghana in 2009 added up to 215′000 tons and a per capita import of 9kg. About 30% comprised of new products and 70% second hand EEE [electrical and electronic equipment]. Around 15% of the second hand imports was estimated to be unsellable (i.e. would not respond to power, broken or outdated), a significant portion of which was destined directly to informal recycling. Another 20% of the imports can be serviced (re- paired/refurbished) to get them functioning.

Amoyaw-Osei et al. (2011, x)

The report also finds that ‘[o]f the 280′000 tons of obsolete devices generated in 2009 [in Ghana] … [a]bout 171′000 tons of WEEE [waste electrical and electronic equipment] from consumers, repair shops and communal collection reached the informal recycling sector’ (pp. x–xi). What these findings mean, then, is that approximately 85% of second-hand imports to Ghana are sellable as used electronics, i.e. are not ‘waste’. It also means that more than half of WEEE in Ghana comes from domestic sources, rather than imports (Lepawsky 2015)

The Waste Crime figure of 40,000 tons of e-waste imported into Ghana annually also jars badly with Grant and Oteng-Ababio (2012), the Waste Crime‘s own source of evidence for the claim.

Port of Tema, Ghana. Source: SteKrueBe via Wikimedia Commons.

Port of Tema, Ghana. Source: By SteKrueBe via Wikimedia Commons.

Grant and Oteng-Ababio (2012, p. 2) cite two journalistic sources (Frontline and Afol News) for their claim that 300 to 600 40 foot containers carrying e-waste arrive in Ghana monthly. Standard 40 foot containers are physically capable of carrying a maximum of 30,480 kg (30.48 metric tons; see International Standards Organization). By straight arithmetic, then, 300 to 600 containers per month can result in a range of 109,728 to 219,456 metric tons arriving in Ghana annually (note: this range does not take into account factors such as container packing density and axle weight ratings for ground transport of containers once in Ghana; accounting for those factors would reduce total weight of container shipments). Thus we come to the conclusion that the weight range that it is physically possible for 300 to 600 40 foot containers to carry (109,728 to 219,456 metric tons) matches neither UNEP’s claim of “about 40 000 tonnes of e-waste” imported into Ghana annually, nor the much higher tonnage claimed in the Frontline piece cited as evidence for the 300 containers per month figure by Grant and Oteng-Ababio (2012). The range of 109,728-219,456 metric tons does match rather well with the UNEP’s E-waste Africa report for Ghana (Aoya-Osei et al., 2011, discussed above), but which is completely ignored in the Waste Crime report.

Frontline claims that Agbogbloshie, a site in Accra, Ghana:

has become one of the world’s digital dumping grounds, where the West’s electronic waste, or e-waste, piles up — hundreds of millions of tons of it each year” (Frontline, 2009, emphasis added).

Notice the very large differences in figures claimed for Ghana. The Waste Crime report states 40,000 tons are imported into Ghana annually. On one hand, 40,000 tons is an order of magnitude less than what 300-600 40 foot containers are physically capable of carrying. But, the more important point here is that it is physically impossible for 300-600 containers per month to deliver “hundreds of millions of tons” of e-waste per year to Ghana. To deliver ‘hundreds of millions of tons’, one would need about 300,000 containers arriving per month (which would result in 109,728,000 metric tons annually). Yet, World Bank data on container shipments for Ghana suggest the possibility of 300,000 containers arriving per month to be a risible assumption: the latest data available show Ghana’s ports moved a total of 793,312 TEU (tweny-foot equivalent units) in 2013. 300,000 40 foot containers amounts to 600,000 TEUs per month–or 7.2 million TEUs annually, nearly 10 times the TEUs recorded for Ghana in 2013 for all commodities shipped to/from the country in that year. In no sense, then, are claims of ‘hundreds of millions’ of tons of e-waste arriving annually in Agbogbloshie credible claims.

Such gaping differences between figures and what is physically possible should, at the very least, raise questions about how reliable and trustworthy UNEP’s Waste Crime figures for Ghana are.

Claim 4

With reference to China, “[a]rtisan recycling is based on the profit from materials of positive market value. These include plastics; precious metals, such as gold, silver, platinum, palladium, and copper; and strategic metals, such as rare earth metals and other non-ferrous metals” (UNEP Waste Crime report, 2015, p. 38)

Our Assessment

Repair technician at work. Beijing, China 2013

Repair technician at work in Beijing, China. Photo Credit: Josh Lepawsky, 2013.

This list of profitable materials streams for “artisan recycling” leaves out what is almost certainly the most profitable aspect of this sector: repair, refurbishment and the salvaging of components for reuse. We do not have studies on what portion of used electronics being traded in China (either domestic or import) is being repaired and reused and what proportion goes to scrap and discard—this is an obvious gap in the China research on this sector. E-Waste in China, a Country Report (Wang et al. 2013), a 60-page report that serves as the Waste Crime report’s main source on e-waste in China, debunks the idea that we actually know how much WEEE comes in and out of China: “the actual quantity of illegal e-waste and second-hand EEE shipped into China is difficult to estimate due to a lack of systematic accounting and first-hand investigation” (p. 15) and “existing estimations in the literature regarding the total volume of e-waste imported into China are very rough and outdated” (p. 16) The lack of research into such a fundamental question, despite China’s role as the world’s purported e-waste leader since 2002, should be confronted directly, and not skirted by guesswork.

Two authors of this response have done fieldwork in China’s informal recycling sector (Goldstein, for a total of 27 months in the field since 2000, primarily in Beijing and North China; Schulz for 15 months since 2013 primarily in Guangdong); our only certainty here is that our own experiences, and those of other long-time observers, jar with Claim 4.  In his book Junkyard Planet, Adam Minter, journalist for Scrap magazine based in China between 2002 and 2013 asserts that reuse is the key economic driver behind the so-called “e-waste” trade, not materials recovery: “Taizhou’s reuse market is one of China’s biggest, but it has counterparts in every city, town, and village across China. Sometimes that market is big, like Taizhou’s; sometimes it’s just a row of refurbished motors and televisions in front of somebody’s home” (p. 109) or “for Guiyu’s traders… it’s the reuse value, and not the scrap metal and plastic value, that really drive profitability. […] ‘The reuse is maybe eighty percent of the profits in Guiyu’ [according to a Guiyu trader, interviewed c. 2012]” (p. 196).

Computer Repair in Shenzhen, China. Photo Credit Yvan Schulz, 2014.

Computer Repair in Shenzhen, China. Photo Credit Yvan Shulz, 2014.

While research literature provides no direct claims about the portion of reusable EEE to WEEE in China, we can find the following assertions in other research that support the argument that repair and reuse are a major, if not the primary, economic driver in China::

  • Less than 10 per cent of China’s estimated domestically generated e-waste (excluding CRTs) is collected and processed by the “formal” sector; 90 per cent is collected and processed (reused, repaired, scrapped) by the “informal” sector. See Wang et al, p. 28.
  • Chi et al. (2011) state two important things: 1) the market for WEEE in China is controlled by the informal sector and 2) informal recyclers engage in the trade of second-hand components and the refurbishment of appliances on a large scale.
  • Yang et al. (2008) acknowledge that “reuse generates higher economic profits than simple material recovery” (article abstract).

To the above statements we can add, on the basis of our own research, that China’s licensed processing companies (the “formal” sector) do not engage in any repair or reuse activities, but exclusively conduct dismantling for the sake of subsequent materials recovery and disposal (referred to as “proper” recycling). By contrast, the multitude of actors who are collectively dubbed the “informal” sector do not only dismantle devices and extract materials, but also repair, refurbish and resell devices and components. That more profit can be made through reusing devices and components than through recovering materials should be acknowledged as a general rule of the e-waste trade. Its impact on material flows can be observed in a wide range of contexts, even though exceptions apply in some cases. Nevertheless, most Chinese scholars ignore it.

Truck weighing scale at discarded electronics market in Beijing, China. Note remains of flat screen TVs at right. Photo credit: Josh Lepawsky, 2013

Truck weighing scale at discarded electronics market in Beijing, China. Note remains of flat screen TVs at right. Photo credit: Josh Lepawsky, 2013

A quite coherent picture emerges when we connect these points together: the informal sector dominates the collection and handling of used electronics and e-waste in China ― this used to be particularly true before the advent of the China WEEE Directive and the introduction of a subsidy for licensed recycling companies in 2014, but it remains true today despite the fact that more than one hundred of these companies are now operating. This dominance is largely due to the fact that the informal sector ― taken as a whole ―  pays a lot more for consumers’ devices than the “formal” sector. And the reason the ‘informal sector’ manages to offer higher prices is that a large portion of what it collects is then sold for repair and reuse. Thus, we argue that Claim 4 excludes the most important economic factor driving China’s trade in used EEE and associated WEEE in the vast majority of cases.

Claim 5

“Even though the informal e-waste recycling system is deeply embedded in some provinces in China, it is possible to phase it out. In the last five to ten years, informal recycling activities were eliminated in Taizhou due to shifts in local manufacturing of electronic products and stricter regulations on polluting activities related to e-waste recycling”(UNEP, Waste Crime, 2015, p.38-39).

Our Assessment

The claim is likely based on a crackdown that occurred in Luqiao city, Taizahou in 2006 that has been discussed in many research and news articles (see below for some sources). No citation is given in the Waste Crime report for this claim, but one finds nearly identical language to the above statement in the UNU report by Wang et al. (2013, p. 22). In that report, the cited source for the alleged effectiveness of this elimination of informal processing in Taizhou would then be: Chiho Tiande, Interview with Chiho-Tiande metal group on the import of e-waste in China 
(conducted by UNU), 2009, Chiho-Tiande metal group (CT): Taizhou, China. But this sole source claiming that the informal sector was phased out in Taizhou is contradicted by a host of research studies and journalist accounts. A 2013 investigative journalist account describes numerous scenes of informal processing, excessive pollution, and mentions that the local government had shut down 804 informal shops on August 29, 2013 (洋电子垃圾集聚台州 腰包鼓起来环境”穷”下去 [Foreign Ewaste hub Taizhou: bulging pockets and environmental “poverty” in Mandarin, here] ). Two more examples include Tang, XJ et al. (2010) and Tang, Xian et al. (2010), both of which claim that the crackdown in Luqiao city merely drove informal e-waste shops into Luqiao suburbs and rural areas.

New and secondhand computers on sale in Guangzhou, China. Photo credit: Yvan Schulz, 2014.

New and secondhand computers on sale in Guangzhou, China. Photo credit: Yvan Shulz, 2014.

Claim 6

Referring to China: “Informal recyclers tend to cluster around the key waterways and ports of entry, suggesting that the input materials for recycling are imported.” (UNEP, Waste Crime, 2015, p. 37)

Our Assessment

There are two generalizations being made here, both of which are unsupported: 1) that informal recyclers cluster around key ports of entry; and 2) that being so located suggests input materials are imported. There are many examples of informal used EEE and WEEE clusters that are not located near ports. In Beijing’s Changping district, far from any port, multiple used appliance markets repair, resell and dismantle tens of thousands of air-conditioners, refrigerators, TVs, and other appliances every year (Goldstein fieldwork, Beijing June 2013). Beijing is not unique in this regard: throughout China informal recyclers handle the bulk of recycling, and this includes used electronics (Chi, X. et al., 2011). Linzner and Salhofer (2014) estimate between 3.3 and 5.6 million people are engaged in informal recycling in China.  This is a massive national-scale sector that–in addition to the bulk of urban China’s everyday post-consumer recycling–also handles China’s domestically produced used EEE and WEEE. Every large city in China has second-hand appliance and computer markets where used units are repaired, refurbished, and sold for reuse.

Discussion of China’s e-waste has been myopically focused upon the Guiyu and Taizhou cases, while this nation-wide network has been neglected. Yet, even if we focus on the Guiyu and Taizhou cases repeatedly highlighted in Waste Crime, the claim that their location is indicative of the role of imports is not strongly researched. Two studies, both over 10 years old (BAN’s Exporting Harm (2002) and Guiyu’s Ewaste Dismantling Industry Anthropological Survey Report (2003, in Mandarin here) co-authored by Greenpeace and researchers from Sun Yatsen University) found evidence that in Guiyu large amounts of WEEE were sourced from abroad.  Since then, though a great deal of research has been done measuring levels of toxins in Guiyu’s water, soil and population resulting in scores of published papers, research into the source and marketing networks of electronics in Guiyu have been nearly non-existent. Two other possible explanations for the locations of clusters in Guiyu and Taizhou are: 1) Proximity to markets where their products (repaired used electronics, components, and commodity scrap) are sold as inputs. Minter writes: “[a]ccording to [several sources, among them Guiyu’s trade association], [Guiyu’s] top customer is in fact Chenghai, a nearby town nicknamed ‘Toy City’ due to its high concentration of toy manufacturers. Many of the toys manufactured there are electronic, and they require microprocessors of the sort that are recovered and sold in Guiyu.” (p. 201).  2)  Being centers of expertise in the field. Taizhou, for example, had a prominent history of secondary metals processing before becoming known for processing e-waste. (Chi et al. 2011, p 735).  And today both Guiyu and Taizhou, as nodes of used EEE and WEEE sectors since the 1990s, are centers of skills and knowledge with a high concentration of experts in the field. But the importance of such histories, local expertise and profitable markets for products are never mentioned in the Waste Crime report, adding to the impression that the only important driver shaping the sector in China is cheap imported WEEE.

Monitors made with refurbished flat-panel displays. Guangzhou, China 2014. Photo credit: Yvan Schulz, 2014.

Monitors made with refurbished flat-panel displays. Guangzhou, China 2014. Photo credit: Yvan Schulz, 2014.

Claim 7

“Early in 2014, members of three smuggling gangs that had imported 72 000 tonnes of e-waste, in total, into China over the previous year – the largest quantity ever found in the country – were arrested (Glombal [sic]Times 2014). What made the case interesting was the route the smugglers took. Unlike the traditional route of sea-land transportation, which uses Hong Kong as the main transit port, the smugglers shipped the e-waste from Hong Kong to another northeast Asian country and then smuggled the waste by small boats to Liaoning Province in northeast China. Finally, the e-waste was transported to Guangdong Province, commonly the final destination for illegal recycling but thousands of kilometres away from Liaoning” (UNEP, 2015, p. 59).

Our Assessment

This paragraph summarizes a case reported in the Global Times in 2014. Though not cited in the report, it is clear that some of the detail also comes from Chinese language news outlets (for example here [in Mandarin]). But the UNEP narrative leaves out a crucial element of the story, which is that most of the “ewaste” was used appliances that were being resold in various markets throughout China; PC motherboards going to Guangdong were only a part of the cargo. See excerpts from Global Times article below:

Police bust ‘e-trash’ smugglers, seize 72,000 tons of goods

By Xinhua – Global Times Source:Xinhua – Global Times Published: 2014-2-26 0:28:04

Sun Hongyan, an official working at Dalian customs in Liaoning Province, said that the smuggled e-trash like electric fans, computers and mobile phones would be disassembled and sorted and then renovated to sell in second-hand market in different regions. There is no quality assurance for such products, China Central Television reported Tuesday.
Other than the renovated ones, some of the waste electronic units like PC motherboards will be sold to small workshops to extract noble metals. However, such refining processes could generate severe environmental pollution.

The Waste Crime report’s selective summary is significant as it repeats a biased narrative that dominates the report: that the main economic factor driving the “ewaste” trade is the profit to be had by the extraction of metals by highly polluting recycling processes (see Claim 4 above). Rather, the Global Times article indicates that much of the “ewaste” being traded is used electronics sold for repair, refurbishment and reuse. While this is a rather minor case of selectively reporting some facts and not others, it supports the general pattern to be discussed in a subsequent post: that in order to represent this sector under the homogenizing and criminalized term “e-waste” the Waste Crime report persistently represents cross-border trade in used electronics as overwhelmingly comprised of unsalvageable “waste” goods that are traded to enable the hazardous extraction of metals, despite an overwhelming amount of evidence that a considerable part of the trade and traffic involves reuse and refurbishment.

More to Come

This first in a series of posts has examined the building of particular facts about “ewaste” in UNEP’s Waste Crime report. In our assessment, the foundations of these facts are weak or–worse–defy what is physically possible to build. If and when the storms of controversy begin to blow in earnest, they will make for poor shelter for their builders. In our forthcoming posts, we examine some consequences of poor fact building practices. We will critically examine an event the Waste Crime report celebrates as, “the first case where anyone was sentenced to jail for illegal export of e-waste” [p. 42]. We also examine the trustworthiness of key pieces of evidence that have been used to build the edifice of the dominant e-waste storyline about waste dumping. The foundations of that edifice are cracked.

11 thoughts on “Criminal Negligence?

  1. Pingback: Sweeping Away Agbogbloshie. Again. « Discard Studies

  2. Have you seen the BAN report “The Digital Dump: Exporting Re-Use and Abuse to Africa” which looks specifically at Nigeria? They note that local experts estimate between “25-75%” of what computers imported are junk (pg. 6). That’s quite a range, sounds to me like a lot of people making off the cuff guesses. But perhaps that is where the 75% figure comes from, the extreme end in a very, very broad range. Email me if you can’t find a copy of that report. I’ve also posted a chapter from my book on my website on Agobogbloshie and e-waste in Ghana (casting similar doubts to the ones you raise) from my 2012 book. Very eager to see the next post in this series.

    • Thanks Jenna! Yes, I know ‘The Digital Dump’ report well. The figures that circulate seem to be a constant shuffling of cards from same the deck. I’ve mapped this out in broad outline here: but there’s much more to be done!

      Your chapter is excellent.

  3. If you have some ideas are are actively moving into advocacy around this, please include me. I’m thinking op-eds, forming a consortium, dunno. My interventions on Twitter don’t seem to be accomplishing much. My attempts to interest journalists have gone nowhere so far.

  4. Dear Josh Lepawsky:

    I am seeing all over the internet for the first time, writings by you discrediting BAN’s old reports on e-waste. They ascribe motives that have never been ours yet you never even called me to discsus what we did with that report and why. You seem obsessed with our citation of electronics recycler export estimates at the time and have accused us of partisanship. Can you call me before you get any more shrill and fixated on what you seem to think obses? I am in Europe now at the Countering e-Waste Illegal Trade conference. But we can certainly skype while I am here.

    Sincerely yours, Jim Puckett
    Executive Director, BAN

    • Jim Puckett writes: “I am seeing all over the internet for the first time, writings by you discrediting BAN’s old reports on e-waste.”

      Really? The September 26, 2013 edition of USA Today included a lengthy article headlined: “Used Electronics: Opportunity or Toxic Waste” that included this passage:

      “Jim Puckett said he hasn’t spoken at length with Lepawsky, but describes the professor as ‘new to the game,’ without the 20-year perspective Puckett has on the issue. BAN was one of the first organizations to publicize e-waste dumping, although Puckett laments the lack of traction the issue has gained in the United States compared to Europe.”

      Now it may be that Puckett hasn’t bothered, in the intervening two years, to read Lepawsky’s work, much less taken note of the extraordinary influence that it’s had on the field. Or, perhaps, Jim’s memory isn’t very good. Whatever the case, I’d encourage everyone involved in this debate – but especially Jim Puckett – to strive for accuracy.

  5. Hi Jim Puckett,

    Academics like Josh and like myself tend to take figures and numbers very seriously as the basis of evidence. This is what Josh and his colleagues are doing in his examination of the UNEP report. I would hardly call this detailed (and frankly often very dry analysis) “shrill” and if you came here to do “tone policing” then you are very much missing the point. If one can only cite your/BAN’s publications by consulting you first then what is the point? I’ve been working physically in Ghana traveling there every year or two and staying in country for up to 9 months. I’ve been in Agbogbloshie and visited very other stop along the way from the port. In your efforts to address environmental concerns you are on the path toward criminalizing African immigrant and ethnic minority populations in the US and Europe. Easy pickings, but not justice by any means. The e-waste problem desperately needs to be addressed. It needs to be addressed in country, in Ghana. The e-waste problem will remain a problem with new as well as used goods. Waste pickers and waste handlers are often easily criminalized which is why many of them around the world organize to represent their own needs and interests. This export ban campaign is not the solution. I would also be very pleased to talk one-to-one about this.


    Jenna Burrell
    Associate Professor
    School of Information

  6. Pingback: U.N. e-scrap report under scrutiny | Economía Circular y Minería Urbana

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