In 1977, “Star Wars” opened at U.S. cinemas. The TV series “Roots” aired on ABC. The Clash and Sex Pistols released punk albums. And the first Apple computer was sold.
Clearly, America was in the midst of an entertainment heyday involving mass media and consumer electronics. But statistics indicate the rest of the world was right there with us. According to British media researcher Graham Mytton, for instance, in 1977, 250 TV stations were broadcasting in Africa. Mytton is uniquely qualified to write on this subject, having spent around 40 years setting up TV and radio stations in Africa for the BBC.
Use of televisions and other electronics only grew from there. In 1987, 30 million Nigerians watched “Basi” (broadcast from a TV station opened in 1959). From 1992 to 2012, African teledensity grew by 3.7 per year.
The following chart, compiled with information from Tekcarta Data Bank, shows the growth in televisions per household in a range of different countries:
Policy by the numbers
What do figures like TVs per household tell us? Namely, that our industry has access to a ton of secondary research data about world electricity use. Understanding it will yield smarter WEEE policy, and it can allow us to move away from the viewpoint that processing sites in Africa, Asia and elsewhere are inundated with material from the U.S. and other more developed economies.
Of course, we also have to be smart about which data points we look at. For example, device ownership per household is more telling than product life cycle numbers, which ignore the secondary market. Replacement data is not waste data.
Smart data analysis is especially important when a “charitable industrial complex” tries to guide policy on management of used electronics across the globe.
For example, statistics show us African TV ownership is apace with many European countries. But during Fair Trade Recycling’s visit to Ghana in 2015, the Africans we interviewed estimated African consumers hold onto TVs for 15 to 30 years per device (like Americans in the 1970s). Knowing about brownouts and surges prevalent in their homeland, the consumers we talked with said they preferred solid-state 1990s CRTs to flat TVs.
Still, the ownership cycle gets shorter. More devices wind up in Africa’s middle-class closets. Emerging markets are juggling the same elective upgrades we see in the U.S. (In an upcoming report, Fair Trade Recycling will share more baseline data points that explain these trends.)
While images of TVs in junkyards stir alarm (especially with kids posed on top), effective recycling policy requires more baseline data, and less speculation. IMF and World Bank loan documents explain more about realities on the ground than do cartoons about “illegal e-waste dumping” or even professional studies assuming African waste is equal to the percentage of “unrepairable imports.”
The e-scrap data picture also needs to include pollution factors that literally occur upstream from processing sites and are not tied to electronics. Move upstream along the river that flows through Guiyu, China, and you find textile mills, smelters and tanneries. Similarly, the claim that Ghana’s infamous Agbogbloshie district was an Eden ruined by imports rests on absurd assumptions. In fact, so much data about the multitude of factors leading to waterway pollution in Ghana is available online that the e-waste hyperbole veers into environmental malpractice.
For more on realities in Agbogbloshie, we can turn to research that shows demolition and relocation in the area was planned in a 2002 document by the Accra Metropolitan Assembly. AMA promoted redevelopment of the slum (near the center of Accra), hoping to turn into a site of high-rise apartments and shopping malls. That document named the neighborhood (Old Fadama) as Sodom and Gomorrah, but there was no mention of imported electronics. Furthermore, residents say that stories of “emergencies” (stormwater, e-waste, or vice) are intended as propaganda to make collateral damage (forced evacuations) more palatable.
Value in research from affected countries
Management of world e-scrap is a real challenge, not a hoax. Rapid urbanization creates dozens of environmental problems – bicycle dumps, millions of plastic bags, and thousands of piles of wood ash from charcoal stoves. The problems are undeniable, but are they are not problems the Basel Convention is designed to solve.
Host country researchers are less distracted by close-up photos of children and other emotional touchpoints, and they focus on baseline data. Such data is overwhelming and includes accurate representations of topics such as generation of WEEE in Hong Kong or the growth of electronics sales in China (see chart below). Virtually every electric utility project financed by IMF or World Bank entailed studies on devices consumers buy before and after the utility opened.
Of course, real data is not as titillating as activist accounts of “thousands of orphans” managing a “witches brew” of “500 sea containers per month” in “ghoulish” conditions. Environmental problems faced by urban planners are too serious and complex to be solved by documentary filmmakers, or by jailing scapegoats like Joe “Hurricane” Benson.
What is the biggest environmental challenge from the African perspective? Many cite traffic and auto pollution, including abandoned cars and tires as well as oil and antifreeze runoff. No one imagines traffic is externalized from wealthy nations, or suggests smog was imported, any more than an American thinks that a 1977 Volkswagen was dumped by the Germans.
It’s time for the e-scrap industry to understand a truth noted in 1971 by cartoonist Walt Kelly’s character Pogo in my favorite strip. “We have met the enemy and he is us,” Pogo says while gazing out at a forest full of garbage.
When it comes to waste generation, all of us are part of the issue – all races, languages and religions, all geographies consuming and using and discarding goods.
Robin Ingenthron is the founder of the Fair Trade Recycling group, formerly known as the World Reuse Repair and Recycling Association. He is also the CEO of Vermont-based Good Point Recycling. He can be contacted at [email protected].
The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not imply endorsement by Resource Recycling, Inc. If you have a subject you wish to cover in a future Op-Ed, please send a short proposal to [email protected] for consideration.