Africa: Next in Line to Get Trashed

e-waste

Guiyu in China and Chennai in India are already well-publicized representations of the global neighbourhood's most ghastly e-waste dump sites - where young and old stake a paltry living out of decomposing remnants of the developed world's obsolete digital dreams, with dire health and environmental consequences. But guess who's turning out to be lowliest of the lowest in the electronic food chain?

Africa, which is increasingly getting swamped with waste; especially with the least valuable stuff like used tires, old cars and useless broken computers that even the thriving recycling industries in China and India turn their noses up at.

In a recent report, "Poisoning the poor: Electronic waste in Ghana" (pdf), Greenpeace draws attention to the worsening fate of African countries which are increasingly becoming the preferred disposal site for the developed world.

"Millions of tonnes of obsolete electronics products are unaccounted for in these regions; around 80% in the US, and up to 75% in the EU (around 6.6 million tonnes in 2006). Some of this e-waste is still stored in people's homes; some ends up in landfill; some is incinerated; and some is exported to developing countries, such as Ghana."

Field investigation and contamination studies of soil and sediment samples taken from recycling sites in Ghana reveal a scenario that closely mirrors the situation in China and India:

"Materials of no value are dumped along with other waste. Much of the work is carried out by children, some as young as five, with no protective equipment and using basic tools, or bare hands ... many samples contained numerous hazardous substances: including very high levels of the toxic metal lead; chemicals such as the phthalates DEHP and DBP, which are known to interfere with sexual reproduction; and chlorinated dioxins known to promote cancer."

Ghana is not the only emerging e-waste hotspot on the continent. The Basel Action Network discovered that filth is also trickling into places like Lagos in Nigeria, as well as Mombasa, Dar es Salaam, and Cairo.

How and why did all this junk end up on the shores of Africa, despite international treaties like the Basel Convention that bans transboundary dumping of hazardous waste? The key problem lies in the murky nature of ‘waste' - if one nation's garbage heap yield potential value to another nation, then ‘dumping' can be justified as ‘trade'.

For China and India, push-pull factors are at play - with exorbitant landfill costs and strict dumping regulations, it's simply cheaper for developed countries to discard their waste in these two labour-rich countries with an insatiable demand for waste-recovered resources like metals to fuel their economic growth spurt.

In Africa, though, ‘obsolete' electronic goods are coveted by trash importers as second-hand commodities for the local market. Thus, most of the e-waste are considered ‘end-of-life' products instead of junk, and shipped over as working products, under the well-meaning guise of bridging the digital divide.

However, according to an earlier report by Consumers International and DanWatch, "E-waste: West Africa continues to drown in the rich world's obsolete electronics" (pdf), most of these ‘second hand' products don't work and end up festering in dumpsites or are burnt.

"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 the threshold limits set by Europe," says Professor Oladele Osibanjo, Director at the Basel Convention Regional Co-ordinating Centre for Africa.

 

Unfortunately, Africa is not only threatened by e-waste. Without stricter regulations and monitoring, it is also prone to ‘Dump and Dash' operations, such as the scandal that plagued Abidjan, Ivory Coast two years ago, where exposure to illegally discharged toxic waste by a European vessel caused at least 16 deaths and left thousands suffering from serious health problems.

The tragedy led the government to enlist the help of UNEP to establish a hazardous waste management plan, which hopefully would be replicated in other African countries. But progress is likely to be slow due to the continent's chronic struggle with political instability, poverty and diseases.

So Much for That Warm Fuzzy Feeling

As consumers, obviously it's simply not yet enough to merely surrender our outdated electronics to any recycling facility, and assume that our conscience will be clear. At present, gaps in regulations and a reliable recycler accreditation mechanism means that we may become unwitting accomplices to indiscriminate waste dumping in developing countries.

There are things that you can do. First, get acquainted with the greenest electronics producers. When you donate old computers, take the initiative to confirm concrete details about the final destination or the recipient; stick with reputable organizations. And ask retailers about their recycling or takeback programs. If they don't have one, tell them you'll be buying from someone else who does. Here's a guide on takeback programs in the U.S (pdf).

Further Reading:

 

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  • Posted on Sept. 8, 2008. Listed in:

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