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It's Not All Waste: The Complicated Life of Surplus Electronics In Africa 236

retroworks writes "Today's Science Daily reports on 5 new UN studies of used computer and electronics management in Africa. The studies find that about 85% of surplus electronics imports are reused, not discarded. Most of the goods pictured in 'primitive e-waste' articles were domestically generated and have been in use, or reused, for years. Africa's technology lifecycle for displays is 2-3 times the productive use cycle in OECD nations. Still, EU bans the trade of used technology to Africa, Interpol has describes 'most' African computer importers as 'criminals,' and U.S. bill HR2284 would do the same. Can Africa 'leapfrog' to newer and better tech? Or are geeks and fixers the appropriate technology for 83% of the world (non-OECD's population)? "
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It's Not All Waste: The Complicated Life of Surplus Electronics In Africa

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  • by aurispector ( 530273 ) on Sunday February 12, 2012 @10:47AM (#39010783)

    Africa remains a case study in unintended consequences. Nowhere else is the phrase "the road to hell is paved with good intentions" so pitifully demonstrated.

    Western liberal arrogance leads us to condescendingly believe we know what's best for Africans. It's the worst racism of all.

  • by Bing Tsher E ( 943915 ) on Sunday February 12, 2012 @11:00AM (#39010865) Journal

    The big manufacturers like Dell have been trumping up the 'eWaste' issue for years now. They do it to make sure they yank all the old hardware out of the secondary (used) market where it inteferes with new equipment sales.

    My local situation is typical. We don't (yet) have to pay a 'disposal fee' to get rid of the 'untouchable' evil-awful old computer equipment, but the local Goodwill is the place-of-choice to donate them to. And Dell has a 'bounty' deal going with Goodwill, to pull all PeeCees out of the donation stream and never, EVER put them out for resale.

    A lot of us got our start playing around with Linux on multiple PCs (networking) using castoff PCs that there are agents now actively making sure are not 'just lying around' for us to fool with. It's quite possible that a lot of that wouldn't happen in today's environment.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday February 12, 2012 @11:03AM (#39010877)

    Ban the sale of reusable goods to countries fully capable of using them and force them to buy new stuff they cannot afford. This whole planet's gone mad, I tells ya', MAD.

    I'm beginning to regret knowing my grandparents. They taught me to fix what could be fixed and only replace what you finally cannot fix. I'm writing this on an old CRT monitor that a friend gave me because the image was getting too dark. I did a little research, found that changing out a single resistor would brighten up the image for another ten years or so and it's still working. Meanwhile, he's using a "new" LCD monitor that's starting to suffer pixel dropouts as it ages. When the power supply fan bearings get noisy, I replace the fan in the power supply. I've even replaced capacitors on motherboards and in power supplies rather than replace the whole unit.

    God, I hate using this term but if that isn't being green I don't know what is. In the old days it wasn't called being green. It was called being frugal (or, if you weren't Scottish in background, being cheap. :-)

    (I'm in Canada, btw, not Africa.)

  • by Opportunist ( 166417 ) on Sunday February 12, 2012 @11:18AM (#39010955)

    Ok, so much the PR, now for reality. As the article said, most of what we export as trash is being reused and recycled. The "terrible consequence" we're fearing most is that we send them resources and even pay them to take them, too. The dumping of dangerous substances is pretty much what happens when they rework our trash and create something useful out of it, and due to less strict environmental laws... well, capitalism at work.

    The biggest danger we really fear is that they not only have cheap labour but also a vast array of resources. Once they manage to get both on track, we're, at best, useless.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday February 12, 2012 @11:39AM (#39011085)
    Typically, Conservatives aren't the ones who have any views on how Africa should be dealt with - either positive or negative. Theirs is pretty much a hands off approach - perfectly happy to let Africans decide what they want to do in their own countries. It's Liberals who have those grand solutions for the rest of the world.
  • by ShavedOrangutan ( 1930630 ) on Sunday February 12, 2012 @12:49PM (#39011523)

    ...only outlaws will have surplus electronics.

    Already done in the U.S. (In my county, at least.)

    I was dropping off some scrap metal for recycling at my local landfill and noticed some awesome hardware sitting in the computer dropoff area. So I tossed a couple of cases and a monitor in the back of my truck. The landfill attendant immediately came over and made me put it all back. They must be getting paid for this stuff as scrap and aren't allowed to let the general public walk off with any of it. Even worse, as a resident, I would have to pay per item to drop off anything. So they're double dipping, too.

    It was good stuff. Better computers than anything I own. People throw away nice computers just because they load up with malware.

    Same with my company. When someone gets a new laptop, the old one is taken away. Years ago, people used to be able to take home old PCs.

  • by arth1 ( 260657 ) on Sunday February 12, 2012 @06:11PM (#39013889) Homepage Journal

    Um.... no. You're a little out of touch, there. Do you realize a 17" LCD with HDMI, etc., is about $100? And that all the old CRT TV's can no longer receive on-air broadcasts without an external converter system?

    Which is why the government handed out rebates to people who needed to buy one. Of course, lots of people (outside Montana) are on cable (58.3 million households or 151.5 million people), satellite or IP and won't need one.

    I haven't even seen a CRT TV in some years now -- outside of the local landfill.

    My TV is a CRT. A 1080p widescreen 120 Hz TV, but still a CRT. I have no desire to replace it with an LCD with staircasing effects for non-native resolutions, greys with purple and green tones and reduced contrast.

    But I don't claim to be representative. The family who looks at the $100 Wal-Mart TV and can't afford it, and instead get a $25 TV from Goodwill or hand-me-down from neighbors or family are more representative than either of us.

    That you only see LCDs could, perhaps, have something to do with you only seeing a tiny part of America, and likely the part that is most similar to your demographics, and not representative of the whole?

  • by Lazarian ( 906722 ) on Sunday February 12, 2012 @07:46PM (#39014547)
    Same story here in Edmonton. At the so-called recycle depot near where I live, I found all sorts of neat stuff. I found a couple really decent laptops which seemed the only thing wrong with them was windows got dosed up with viruses. Installed linux mint on them and gave them to my nieces. At the time the employees didn't mind if a person grabbed a goodie here or there, but now nobody can take anything at all. All that stuff gets the cords cut off and thrown into shipping containers in the back compound. It's enough to make a geek cry seeing all that neat stuff get trashed. At least I was able to get a couple nice computers out of it while it lasted.
  • by ChatHuant ( 801522 ) on Sunday February 12, 2012 @10:37PM (#39015413)

    Those millennia old tribal conflicts are rather recent, and spurred on by western companies delivering weapons to local warlords in exchange for free extraction of resources.

    I don't know what to make of this statement. It's a very stretched interpretation of history. I'd say it's stretched so far it's very close to pure unadulterated lying. The history of the African continent suffers of a scarcity of written material, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, but the information we have completely contradicts your assertion. Africa (as a whole) wasn't ever a loving peaceful society, before or after the arrival of the "evil western companies", as you imply. It always had its share of wars, military conquests [], bloody battles and so on, just like all other continents. Look at North African history, which is better documented, due to the formation there of large statal structures, and to its closeness to Europe: you'll see the huge wars Egypt was involved in millenia ago, complete with genocides and other fun events. You'll see the often bloody fights between Islamic groups, and the military Islamic conquest of North Africa [] - all before the 15th century, when Europeans started seriously entering Africa. The things we know about Sub-Saharan Africa indicate the same pattern (keeping in mind that fewer really large statal formations existed there). Look at the Mali Empire [] and its military expansion during the 13th and 14th centuries (which expansion included razing of cities and enslaving of conquered peoples - see Ibn Battuta's [] description of his return from the Mali Empire on a caravan that transported 600 female slaves to be sold in Morocco).

    Further south, look at the Kingdom of Kongo [], who was founded via the military conquest of the kingdom of Mwene Kabunga. The Kingdom of Kongo used his expansion wars to obtain slaves; slavery was well established in Kongo, and later, when the Portuguese arrived, slaves became one of the kingdom's exports. Even further south, we have the lesser Kingdom of Mutapa [], also born of conquest, who warred against the neighboring Butwa empire. This pattern exists in pre-colonial Africa almost everywhere you look. Kingdoms or empires are formed and destroyed through military conquest, dinasties rise and fall, sometimes entire tribes or peoples are destroyed or displaced.
    Surely, the "evil western companies" made full use of the "divide and conquer" approach, used the internal dissensions of Africa to their advantage and sometimes caused them. There is no doubt about that. However, saying the conflicts are recent and implying they didn't exist before the arrival of the companies takes you beyond the simple political correctness frontier and drops you straight into the bullshit area.

This process can check if this value is zero, and if it is, it does something child-like. -- Forbes Burkowski, CS 454, University of Washington