wastes - process

After Lagos (a report)

February 2015

text: Dani Ploeger, photos: Peter Dammann

The time in Lagos was turbulent in many ways and I think that the events that accompanied and surrounded the three days during which we actually participated in e-waste recycling labour need to be acknowledged if we want to pursue the participatory methodology of the project earnestly: The political framework of the movement and processing of electronic waste is not limited to the social and material dimensions of the working places we entered at the dump site. The broader context in which the workshop took place gives insights into, as well as affected the way our visit to/ intrusion of/ integration in (these all apply to a certain extent I feel) the recycling sites took shape and was experienced.

Shortly after starting the preparations for the workshop, Peter Dammann, Jelili Atiku, our guide Adeola, and I are robbed whilst stuck in a traffic jam: four men come up to the car, smash the windows and demand that we hand over our belongings. In the following days, we are frequently stopped by traffic police officers who request bribes, apparently because some of us are white. On one occasion, two police officers are shot down by an armed civilian on a motorbike, whilst one of them has the papers of Kehinde Olubanjo - a local environmental scientist in our group who drives the car - in an attempt to get a bribe. Last but not least, during one of the last nights our hotel catches fire. The fire alarm doesn’t work, staff doesn’t know what to do, and the gate of the premises is too narrow for the fire truck to enter. Chris Williams crawls through the toxic smoke and narrowly escapes. Shu Lea is stuck in her room and after smashing her window with a chair, she escapes from the second floor with a found ladder which we placed under her window.

Besides these somewhat dramatic incidents, it is generally difficult to move around with the group in public space. There is virtually no tourism in Nigeria and the locations we visit are hardly ever frequented by foreigners. The presence of caucasian and asian bodies invariably effects excited responses, often friendly, but sometimes suspicious or aggressive. This constant high level of attention makes it challenging to navigate public space and informally explore different aspects of used electronics trading and repair, also for the local participants in the group.

This difficulty also dominates our navigation around Alaba Market, an enormous market in the western outskirts of Lagos which includes one of the biggest used electronics trading sites in Nigeria. After recommendation by Kehinde, who has done research into informal e-waste recycling across Nigeria, and with the help of Ibrahim, a local second hand electronics salesman from Jelili’s neighborhood Ejigbo, we eventually end up at a small dump site connected to the market. A large open space with piles of all sorts of materials and devices: iron casings of flat screen televisions, computers and household appliances; keyboards and other plastic shells; CDs, DVDs and their boxes; cables and other peripherals. The site is surrounded by small residential huts, behind which there is a general dumping area with domestic waste and non-recyclable left overs of the e-waste (mainly plastic). Some workers are burning cables here to extract copper, whilst a herd of cows grazes the place for eadible left overs in the domestic waste.

After making the necessary arrangements with the so-called Market Association (which includes a substantial private ‘donation’ to one of the chairmen in order to 'guarantee our safety’), we meet two groups of workers. They are all migrants from the North of the country; Muslims who speak Hausa and generally only a little Pidgin English. This makes communication more challenging than expected, since our Nigerian participants only speak Yoruba and Igbo, in addition to Pidgin. The first group of young men, led by Mohammad, work primarily on the dismantling of larger items such as televisions and microwaves to extract iron and aluminium, whilst the second group - working at a small backyard next to the dump - retrieve metal parts and components from circuit boards and open up transformers and fridge pumps to extract copper wire. Initially, our arrival at the sites causes much excitement, partly because of the mere presence of 'the white man’, but also because of our request to be mentored in recycling techniques by the workers and subsequently work alongside them for two days. I explain to them that the project particpants tend to only ever encounter consumer electronics as polished black boxes in their everyday lives and that we hope that participating in their way of working with the insides of these devices will offer us another perspective. After agreeing with the leaders of the groups on a reasonable compensation for the mentoring and the loss of productivity that would result from our presence at the workplace, we start out.

Spread out over three sessions, taking place over three days, the project participants each engage and participate in the place and its processes in different ways. This is some of the work I take part in:

-Harvesting circuit boards for copper (usually coils), aluminium (heat sinks), high capacity transistors, and microchips. I work with, and am guided by Basu. It quickly becomes apparent that we have a similar rudimentary knowledge of the components on the circuit board and their functions. However, our interactions with the material are very different. I am used to touching the boards with great care and am always fearful to cause damage. Basu shows me that I shouldn’t be totally careless in the way I handle the boards here, but need to find a balance between finesse (valuable components need to be taken out in perfect condition) and speed (no time should be wasted on delicately detaching copper and aluminium).

-Opening up transformers to take out copper wire. I learn a range of variations to unwrap different kinds of coils. The big transformers are cut through with a knife and hammer. The knives are discarded traditional farming and butchers knives, usually broken into several pieces. These artefacts gradually disappear during the heavy duty use at the recycling site, and show the traces of the specific techniques of their application here.

-Dismantling flatscreen televisions. This is done very quickly and usually only the iron and aluminium casings are retrieved. Unscrewing the devices and ripping out and throwing away their insides feels very much like slaughtering to me; an abject journey into the intestines. When I see a working television now, I often impulsively imagine how I could screw it apart and dismantle it effectively.

-Dismantling computers and hifi components. Material decay in all sorts of forms – rust, dirt – makes the devices increasingly resistive to my screwdriver; the machines that have not been exposed to the elements for too long yet come apart in a steady rhythmic interaction with the tools, whilst decaying screws and covers necessitate a struggle for access (usually ending in brutal attempts to break things open).

In addition to these engagements with materials, there is also a broader dimension to the work process: I take on my tasks with a fanaticism and almost obsessive ambition to do well and be as productive as possible, taking only short and infrequent breaks, pretty much exhausting myself within a few hours. Very differently, the actual workers tend to work the entire day – as long as it is light - but interrupt their tasks frequently to socialize, play cards and pool billiards (there is a pool table in the corner of the yard). Whilst there appears to be a clear rhythm in the work, both in terms of the engagement with the materials and the (social) interaction within the group, there doesn’t appear to be a structure where the leader checks carefully on working hours or how hard individual people are working. When I ask one of the guys next to me, Abu Bakr, how they determine who gets how much of the yard’s income in relation to the amount of work each of them has done, he simply answers 'we share it’.

After Hong Kong (another report)

April 2015

text: Dani Ploeger, photos: Peter Dammann

Shopping centers with dozens of tiny electronics shops, filled with young men glaring at gadgets; an Apple store with almost as many staff as customers, who queue to buy products at any time of the day; metro passengers tapping away on the latest mobile phone models, almost too big tohold for an old fashioned phone call. In the shadows of this apparent consumer paradise we found an intricate world of small recycling companies, charities curiously specialized in used electronics, and shady traders on an unofficial e-waste night market. The Hong Kong workshop was full of paradoxes and surprises. Judging from the groundbreaking research on e-waste recycling of the project’s co-investigator, Janet Chan, and other Hong Kong-based toxicologists, one might expect an electronic waste recycling infrastructure that is of an equally advanced level as the techno consumer culture that dominates the city’s shopping malls and public spaces. However, most recycling initiatives in Hong Kong, as well as their labour processes, are remarkably small scale and manual handling-oriented. For this workshop, the participant group consisted of Janet Chan (Hong Kong University), Shu Lea Cheang (Independent artist), Neil Maycroft (University of Lincoln), Irini Papadimitriou (Victoria & Albert Museum), Chris Williams (Institute of Education, University of London), and myself. Jelili Atiku was not able to join due to visa problems. Similar to the Lagos workshop, the group’s participation in e-waste recycling labour, which forms the centre of the project, took place in the context of a range of other explorations and experiences of (new and used) consumer technology. In addition to two days at Vannex International Ltd., where we dismantled computers and monitors, we spent time playing around in the city’s foremost Apple Store in the IFC Mall on Hong Kong Island, visited the Caritas Computer Workshop, and made excursions to the Golden Computer Centre and the Apliu Street Market at Sham Shui Po in Kowloon.

The Apple Store is among the best situated shops in the IFC mall in central Hong Hong. Located right next to one of the entrances, a glass wall covers the entire two floors, offering views on the water front, ferris wheel, and some of the downtown skyscrapers. I play around with an iPhone 6 plus, an extra large model which is clearly the preferred size here. The internet browser shows that the user before me visited an online currency converter to calculate the price of the device in Chinese Yuan; many customers here are shopping tourists from mainland China who take advantage of the cheaper prices of consumer electronics in Hong Kong. I speak to a salesperson and ask her why I should buy a Mac to do my photo editing. She tells me that Apple devices have great design and battery life, and that iPhoto can now recognize the faces of my friends.

The Golden Computer Centre at Sham Shui Po is in many ways the opposite of the Apple Store. Numerous tiny shops illuminated by fluorescent light display rows of laptops donned with brightly coloured signs that state price and technical specifications. The air is filled with a smell of new plastic and circuit boards. It is early Saturday evening and the narrow pathways between the shops are crowded with people. Unlike the Apple Store’s mixed clientele, the customers here are predominantly young men, most of them in pairs or by themselves, some accompanied by their girlfriends. This is the kind of electronics retailing I remember from my 1990s childhood as a computer geek. In Europe this kind of shop has pretty much disappeared by now. In an act of nostalgia I go to one of the component shops and get myself a quote for a custom-built machine, stuffed with high end processors, graphics card, and memory. The attendant assisting me appears to know all the serial numbers and specifications by heart and types them into his computer at lightning speed. The motherboards and CPUs on display in the shop look spectacular. The colourful and flashy heat sinks and cooling fans, accompanied by text printed next to the components on the boards to celebrate their power (‘GPU boost’, 'TurboV’) are reminiscent of the lowered BMWs with quadruple exhaust pipes and decorative spoilers one encounters on Saturday nights in European rural communities. Quite different from the lifestyle design of the exterior of Apple’s computers, the design aspect here appears to be focused on a celebration of computing power for those who engage with the physical insides of the machines.

Despite these differences there is an important similarity between this chaotic computing power paradise and the stylish Mac Store: both places promote a desire for the latest, newest consumer technologies, albeit in different ways. Ironically, this desire even appears to prevail among those who are engaged in the e-waste recycling industry in Hong Kong. During our visit of the Computer Workshop of the catholic charity Caritas, social worker and workshop supervisor, Chun-Wai Cheung, explains to us that they collect old equipment from 'middle class’ families to refurbish for the 'needy’, or to dismantle for recycling. A similar focus on discarded devices as a solution for the underprivileged is prominent in a presentation given to us by Lawrence Cheung from the Hong Kong government Environmental Protection Department during our symposium at Hong Kong University on the last day of the workshop. Refurbishment of used computers appears to only be considered as a solution to provide computer access to the 'deprived’ who cannot afford a new system, rather than an alternative for any member of the general public who don’t require state of the art devices to satisfy their everyday IT needs.

During the week before the other participants arrive, Peter Dammann and I are taken for a walk through the informal second hand electronics market a few blocks away from the computer centre by Lisa Leung, a cultural theorist based at Lingnan University. This shadow market opens every evening after the regular market stalls have closed and the Environmental Protection Department’s officers have gone home for the night. In the streets right next to Sham Shui Po metro station, small traders sell individual devices mingled with piles of old cables and chargers spread out on blankets on the street. Walking on, larger enterprises start to appear in the less busy and more sparingly lit streets. Makeshift warehouses behind shop front shutters reveal stacks of used televisions, computers and audio equipment, whilst trucks offload seemingly random collections of battered electric and electronic goods on the sides of the street. A few South Asian and African men are busy inspecting and testing devices. In front of one of the makeshift warehouses we get in conversation with Mike, a trader from Imo, a town in South East Nigeria. He tells us that he travels to Hong Kong every two weeks to buy a container full of used electronics, which he sells at an electronics market in his home town. According to Mike, most African traders who frequent this market are Nigerians, and a number of them actually sell their products at Alaba Market in Lagos, where our first workshop took place.

On our next visit to the market, joined by the other project participants, we visit the same warehouse. We look at a pile of dirty and rusty computer cases that are piled up in the back. When Janet Chan, the project’s Co-Investigator, asks the owner in Cantonese what he will do with them, the trader immediately assumes that we are in the e-waste business. Janet spontaneously decides to play along and tells the owner that I’m a trader from the UK and that she’s my agent in Hong Kong. It turns out that he operates a second site, closer to the mainland border, from where he organizes e-waste imports and exports. He tells us that it would be very easy to send him our waste and that we don’t need any special permits. Although forbidden according to the Basel Convention, we are assured that we can even send him batches of entirely broken devices. We should contact him via Whatsapp with pictures of our cargo, after which he will send us a quote. We pay for the transport of a 20 or 40 feet container and he will pay us for our waste, which he will then send on to mainland China for recycling. It’s even easier for American companies he says, because their government pays for the transport of their e-waste to Hong Kong.

At the Vannex e-waste recycling plant we are greeted by Carmen Wong and Milli Wong, the company’s  Marketing Manager, and Environmental Health and Safety Officer. Vannex is one of the main e-waste recyclers in Hong Kong and the only company that is licensed to recycle cathode ray tubes from colour televisions and monitors through chemical processes. Most dismantling work is done manually with the help of air pressure screw drivers. Considering this, it is quite remarkable that the company has only about 30 employees of which 20 are engaging in actual recycling labour; how can the vast stream of discarded electronics from Hong Kong possibly be coped with if there are merely a few recycling enterprises of this size? We are hosted with great generosity throughout the two days we spend at Vannex. We are allowed to occupy the ordinary work places and receive instructions from the company’s regular workers, thus greatly reducing the factory’s productivity for two days. At lunch time, we are even offered festive meal in the canteen, together with the workers.

After an introduction to the company’s activities and an induction to the safety procedures around the work we are going to undertake each one of us is assigned to a different area on the workfloor, dedicated to the disassembly of a particular item: desktop computers, monitors, laptops, as well as hard disk data removal and stripping PC motherboards of memory chips and CPUs. We rotate after each block of a few hours, so each participant takes part in several of these activities over the course of the two days we spend at the factory.

I take part in the following activities:
-Dismantling desktop computers.
Using a pneumatic screwdriver, I unscrew the case and subsequently all the interior parts of the system. Yin, one of the regular workers who mentors me, shows me the idiosyncrasies of different models, different screws. Bits of the screwdriver are exchanged, movement is swift and effortless, but where are the screws? Each brand has its own logic it seems. The outside of the cases is often still in clean and in neat condition, but inside: dust! Unexpectedly, the sterile-looking mouth protection mask we have been provided is actually a necessity here. Pulling out the power and data cables from the machines’ interiors makes me feel like a butcher removing intestines from a carcas. The experience of abjection doesn’t go all the way though: the repetitious screwdriver action in conjunction with the successive exchange of the bits gradually reduces my experience of the computers to collections of particular types of screws; very different from my everyday experience of these devices as sophisticated communication media that oftentimes make me ignore their physical practicalities.

-Separating CPUs and memory from motherboards.
I wore quite thick working gloves to handle the desktop cases, but now I use smooth, thin ones - and sometimes my bare hands - that allow me to undo the clips of the memory strips and the small handles that release the CPUs. These parts are all from machines between 10 and 15 years old and appear designed to enable users to independently increase memory and upgrade to a faster CPU. This is no longer so convenient – if not impossible - with contemporary (mini, laptop and tablet) computers. My fingers are gradually getting used to the sharpness of the soldering joints on the backs of the circuit boards, the legs of the chips, pointy components sticking out. Also here I am drawn to the stark opposition between the smooth outsides of the computers and the noisy landscapes (visually and haptically) we find inside them. Some of the circuit boards stand out: the flashy car tuning-like parts I also encountered in the Golden Computer Centre. Streamlined blue and purple heat sinks, some even equipped with ornamental gold-coloured heat sinks on the memory cards.

-Dismantling laptops.
I use the pneumatic screwdriver to remove all screws from the device, first from the back, then, after detaching the battery and the keyboard, from the motherboard inside. Although all devices are opened up following the same general pattern, the challenge is again to find for each brand and model where the screws are located and what tricks to use to flip off the keyboard. Each individual part of the device is put in a different box: battery, screen, keyboard, hard disk, DVD drive, fan, copper parts, aluminium, rest plastic. I do this for several hours and whilst I am working I think about the similar work I did in Lagos three weeks earlier. As a matter of fact, the work in the factory here is not that different, except for two important aspects: Firstly, the more powerful mechanized tools and the more regulated and protected environment make the engagement with the materials seem somewhat distantiated. Secondly, unlike the selective hunt for precious parts at the site in Lagos, the meticulous separation of the different components at Vannex is not primarily driven by a worker’s assessment of the potential value of the different parts. Here, it feels more like he fulfillment of a task for its own sake; the assignment is to separate the parts to enable recycling, regardless of their individual monetary value.

“You look like Harry Potter’s school class”, Carmen says during another shared lunch with the project participants. At our symposium, 'E-waste and Global Exchange’, at Hong University on the last day of the workshop, we receive similarly startled responses from the policymaker and scientist-dominated audience. Although I am not a big fan of Harry Potter, I guess Carmen’s comparison may actually be quite appropriate: the eclectic mix of cultural theorists, scientists and artists that make up our group surely must appear curious to somebody working in industrial recycling or toxicology research; the idea of rethinking and ’re-doing’ (whatever this may turn out to be) of electronic waste through this odd collective’s hands-on exploration of recycling labour may indeed be a methodology suitable for Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.  Over the next months, we will exchange our work experiences and explore possibilities for shared ideas, artefacts, and actions. The outcomes will be presented at the project’s concluding workshop at Watermans in London, 29 June – 4 July. Who knows, we might come up with some Harry Potter-like e-waste 'Transfiguration’ tactics, or a 'Defence Against the Dark Arts’ of techno consumerism here...

our text here...

After London (the third report)

July 2015

text: Dani Ploeger, photos: Neil Maycroft

In the beginning of July we installed our group exhibition at the Watermans Centre in London, which ran from 5-25 July. After a week of sharing ideas and reflections on the workshops in Lagos and Hong Kong, a group of project participants including Shu Lea Cheang, Neil Maycroft, Kehinde Olubanjo, Irini Papadimitriou, Chris Williams and myself collaborated on the creation of a number of short texts and artifacts. These formed the heart of a show that intertwined artwork with critical theory and reflections on methodology in science.

The workshop week started with a group visit to the SWEEEP Kuusakoski plant in Sittingbourne, Britain’s foremost e-waste recycling facility, which claims to retrieve close to 100% of materials. We were accompanied by artists Susana Sanroman and Maria Jose Arceo, who have made work on the premises of SWEEEP before. Unlike our visits to Alaba Market in Lagos and the Vannex factory in Hong Kong, we did not participate in the recycling work in Sittingbourne; health & safety concerns and regulations make such endeavours much more difficult if not impossible to arrange in the UK.

Health & safety concerns were also a mainstay in the guided tour through the premises, offered by SWEEEP’s commercial manager, Justin Greenaway. A number of times, he highlighted the various measures that are taken for the protection of workers: regular blood samples are taken to monitor heavy metal levels, air quality measuring devices are worn on the work clothing of employees, findings about newly discovered hazardous and explosive components (e.g. gas bottles) are shared with other companies in the industry. Similarly, the online promotional videos for the plant emphasize its cleanliness.

Nevertheless, our experience of the visit was overshadowed, at times literally, by clouds of dirt and dust. Unlike the work we witnessed and participated in in Lagos and Hong Kong, which consisted mainly of disassembly and detachment of specific components, the processes at SWEEEP are based on grinding and pulverizing devices, after which the particles are separated according to material. Whilst this process allows for a much higher rate of recycling through the use of hi-tech machinery that sorts materials according to colour the grinding process causes a great amount of dust. Quite unlike the promotional video we found online and the documentaries we watched in the PR office with Jason, large parts of the factory were covered in thick layers of dust in which small shiny particles could be spotted with the bare eye. Dust could be felt. Surprisingly, most workers did not wear mouth protection and safety posters indicated that it was ‘optional’.

The juxtaposition between this experience of the environment and the representation of the recycling processes in both explanatory narratives and promotional video material is prominent. Regardless of whether the dusty environment is actually hazardous for human health (we did not do any measurements), there is what we might call a 'performance of cleanliness’ that lies at the heart of all these representations. Through an emphasis on safety measures in conversations about the site, and the prominent visual cleanliness in the videos, the high efficiency of the process in terms of resources recovery is convincingly connected to a notion of cleanliness and health. However, Paradoxically, most participants felt that the high dust concentration made the actual site appear much less clean than the Vannex factory in Hong Kong and even the dump site in Lagos.

The 'performance of cleanliness’ also came to mind in Jennifer Gabrys’ presentation at the Bodies of Planned Obsolescence event we organized as part of the V&A Museum’s Digital Futures series later on in the week. Jennifer discussed protective suits worn at the Intel IC plant in Silicon Valley. Although the suits’ appearance suggest a clean and safe working environment, they merely protect the products from dust pollution originating from human bodies. They don’t actually protect the workers’ bodies from hazardous substances.

In the days following our visit to SWEEEP, we conducted a workshop to share our observations and reflections on our participatory work in Lagos and Hong Kong and the site visit in Sittingbourne. After presenting our ideas of the last months to each other, and revisiting the shared online document we had worked on since the end of the Hong Kong workshop, we identified five thematic areas of interest: consumer electronics and dust, e-waste in cyborgs, shared methodologies, bodies and global exchanges, tools and the local/global.

Each of these themes was then explored by a small group of 2-4 participants, resulting in the shared creation of a number of interdisciplinary artefacts and short texts. These materials formed the basis of our exhibition at Watermans Centre. An overview of the exhibtion can be found in the 'outcomes' section.