Exporting e-waste to emerging markets

Despite European regulations to prevent electronic waste from being dumped in Africa and Asia, a hidden flow of end-of-life electronics has been threatening to drown West Africa. Consumers International has been calling for tighter government monitoring and greater corporate responsibility to prevent the effective dumping of toxic electronics on the developing world.

Investigations indicate that around half a million second-hand computers are dumped on Nigeria every month. Read More Although the exporting of used-electronics is legal, local experts say 75 per cent of PCs that arrive are obsolete and quickly end up on toxic dumps around Lagos. This is just the tip of the 6.6mns tons of unaccounted-for e-waste that leaves EU countries each year. Missing millions of tons Every month, hundreds of tons of obsolete computers, televisions and other household consumer electronics are arriving at ports in Ghana and Nigeria. From here, the second-hand electronics are distributed via local networks of dealers throughout the country.

According to local Ghanaian and Nigerian sources interviewed by CI's partner organisation, DanWatch, as few as one in four of the imports are working, while the remaining electronic waste, also known as e-waste, often ends up on dumpsite fires. "Ghana is increasingly becoming a dumping ground for waste from Europe and the US. We are talking about several tons of obsolete discarded computers, monitors etc. We don't have the mechanism or the system in place in this country to recycle these wastes.

Some of these items come in under the guise of donations, but when you examine the items they don't work," said Mike Anane, Director of the league of Environmental Journalists in Ghana. The arrival of flat-screen televisions and TFT-monitors on consumer markets in the USA and in Europe has set off a flood of old CRT-television sets spilling into Africa. In Accra and in Lagos, the capitals of Ghana and Nigeria, the change in European consumer habits is clearly visible as old-fashioned CRT-television sets are lined up along the streets by their thousands. Each year, European consumers are producing 8.7mn tons of e-waste. Despite the Basel Ban Amendment under the Basel Convention, which forbids the export of e-waste from developed to developing countries, only 25 per cent of this e-waste is recycled.

Approximately 6.6mn tons is unaccounted for - and a significant part of this is dumped in countries outside the rich world. Local experts, politicians and campaigners fear the enormous influx of obsolete electronics is posing a serious long term threat to the environment and to human health. In West Africa, refuse is often disposed of in fires. It is not unusual that waste collectors will destroy the cathode ray tubes, and burn the wires and circuit boards inside, to get to the copper wires and other metals, which can be resold. However, the costs to the environment and to human health are too high, says Professor Oladele Osibanjo, Director at the Basel Convention Regional Co-ordinating Centre for Africa. "We have about half a million computers, used computers, coming into the Lagos port every month, and only 25 per cent of these are working.

75 per cent is junk. The volume is so large, that the people who trade it, just burn it like ordinary refuse. Our studies have shown that the levels of metals in this waste are far beyond [e-waste dump sites in Nigeria and Ghana (Photo: DanWatch)] the threshold limits set by Europe." Unwitting contributors As part of investigations in West Africa, DanWatch visited dumpsites, where computers from institutions such as Westminster City Council and The World Bank were piled up together with computers from numerous European, American and Asian companies in literally mountains of e-waste. At one site on the outskirts of Accra, clouds of black smoke rose from several fires, as boys, some as young as ten years old, ignored the toxic fumes to get to the precious metal scraps beneath the melting e-waste: "The lead, the mercury and all the other toxins bio-accumulate.

That is to say, they stay in the food chain. The people that break open these CRT-monitors tell me that they suffer from nausea, headaches and chest- and respiratory problems. As a result of breaking these things and burning the wires they inhale a lot of fumes. Sometimes you even find children breaking these cathode ray tubes apart just to get the wires and other metals to sell," said Mike Anane. Exporters are able to ship e-waste by exploiting a loophole in European legislation that allows 'end-of-life' electronic goods to be exported as working products. Even NGOs are sometimes unwillingly involved in the trade, when large quantities of mobile phones and computers are donated to help schools and institutions. In one case, a UK-based organisation offered to donate 10,000 computers to a Nigerian NGO. However, only 2,000 of the computers proved to be functioning: "This is why we believe there is a need for tighter regulation in the EU and USA," said Professor Oladele Osibanjo of the Basel regional centre.

"The adverse effects override the potential gain. We are being made a dumping ground for electronic waste under the guise of bridging the divide and trying to make the poor have access to ICT," he said. Professor Osibanjo at the Basel Convention Regional Co-ordinating centre for Africa calls for urgent measures to stem the tide of obsolete electronics flowing into Africa: " I think that countries within the EU and other developed countries have to put in place a mechanism whereby only tested and certified computers that can actually offer some useful life are allowed to come in here." The hidden flow of e-waste from Europe to Africa mounts by the day. Unless EU countries enforce regulations that are set aside in the Basel Convention, the environmental pollution from toxic dump sites in Ghana and Nigeria will simply continue to grow. What can be done? Toxic electronic dumping on the developing world is outlawed in countries signed up to the Basel Ban.

As a first step Consumers International calls on non-signatories such as Australia, Canada and the US to ratify the Basel convention and implement it in national legislation. However, the 6.6mn tons of e-waste from the EU that cannot be accounted for appears to be ending up in places like Ghana and Nigeria. Much of this waste is coming in to these countries under the guise of legitimate used-computer donations, which bypasses the Basel Ban. It is clear that exporting countries need tougher monitoring to ensure donated electronic goods are in meaningful working order. Obsolete electrical equipment should be disposed or recycled in the country of origin using environmentally sustainable methods. Electronic manufacturers and retailers also have a responsibility to stop using hazardous material in the production of electronic equipment. In many cases, safer alternatives currently exist and these should be actively sourced.

Furthermore, consumers should not be expected to bear the cost of recycling old electrical goods. Manufacturers should take full life cycle responsibility for their products and, once they reach the end of their useful life, take their goods back for re-use, safe recycling or disposal. Consumers should be able to trust manufactures and government legislation to ensure that, when they do the right thing and hand in used electronic equipment, it is not dumped in the developing world. Research and fieldwork for this report was carried out by DanWatch, a corporate watchdog working to document the exploitation of labour, environment and natural resources in developing nations hosting western workplaces, investments, trade and production

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