Shifting Mountains of Electronic Waste

By Lubick, Naomi | Environmental Health Perspectives, April 2012 | Go to article overview

Shifting Mountains of Electronic Waste


Lubick, Naomi, Environmental Health Perspectives


Local users are now the main source of electronic waste in Africa, but illegal imports of old computers, televisions, and other electronics devices from Europe, Asia, and North America still make their way there. That's the finding of Where Are WEEE in Africa?, a new United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report about waste electronic and electrical equipment--also known as WEEE, or e-waste--in Benin, Cote d'Ivoire, Ghana, Liberia, and Nigeria.' A large portion of these imports are of good quality, have a decent life expectancy, and bring many socioeconomic benefits, according to the report, but the rest is hazardous junk that is often resold and recycled under unsafe conditions.

Under the. 1989 Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal,' e-waste that contains hazardous elements may not be exported to developing countries for disposal, although such waste can be sold as scrap inside a country. Nevertheless, at least 250,000 metric tons of e-waste still illegally enters the five African countries surveyed each year, comparable to about 5% of the e-waste produced in Europe. (1) Where Are WEEE? coauthor Mathias Schluep of Empa, the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology, says most e-waste imports into West Africa come from Europe despite the presence of efficient European recycling facilities.

Local use of electronics equipment has jumped in each of the five countries, accounting for an estimated 50-85% of the e-waste reported in these countries in 2010. (1) The report estimates that 30% of all secondhand imports don't work, but that half the nonfunctioning items imported that year were repaired and resold locally.

E-waste often ends up in informal recycling centers, where it is sorted for reuse or broken down by hand and picked clean for valuable metals, then destroyed in inefficient, toxicant-producing settings, Schluep says. Open fires are tended by children, who are paid by dealers collecting metals such. as copper. Schluep says girls who sell water to the workers in these settings also are exposed to the potentially toxic by-products released from the low-temperature fires.

The release of dioxins is on the rise from the burning of brominated flame retardants in plastics that house these components dioxin emissions from cable burning in the greater Accra region, for instance, are estimated to correspond to about 0.3% of total dioxin emissions in Europe. (3) While that number may sound small, Schluep says Accra's tiny proportion, when extrapolated to the whole continent, adds up to a substantial amount. Recent measurements in Accra show increasing levels of polybrominated diphenyl ether flame retardants in breastmilk associated with informal recycling of e-waste. (4)

Unscrupulous sellers can get around the Basel Convention, which targets nonsalvageable items, by labeling e-waste as goods to be resold or donated. With millions of containers passing through European ports, "it's impossible for a port authority to check them all," says Ruediger Kuehr, executive secretary of the Solving the e-Waste Problem (StEP) Initiative, a multistakeholder initiative that counts industry, academia., governments, and nonprofits as its members. Loopholes allow sellers to ship items classified for reuse "even though it's simply junk," he says, but in the countries in the UNEP report, thriving refurbishment and repair businesses are "making a living, and also want to be environmentally sound."

Eric Williams, a professor at the Golisano Institute of Sustainability at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, is concerned that a disconnect between recyclers in Africa and the global market prevents them from selling back to Europe. "African recyclers could probably sell circuit boards to European metals refineries for more money than they would get by recycling the boards themselves," he says. "Presumably the reason they don't export circuit boards to Europe is that they're not set up as an industry that can make long-term contracts and official export agreements. …

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