MAC/20: Mines and Communities

High-Tech Toxic Trash Exported to Africa

Published by MAC on 2005-10-24


An estimated forty per cent of heavy metals in US waste dumps is "e-waste", deriving mainly from abandoned computers. Worse, many of these toxic timebombs continue to be exported to South-based countries in flat contravention of the Basel Convention. After China and India, the continent of Africa has now become a favoured dumping ground.

High-Tech Toxic Trash Exported to Africa

Press release: Basel Action Network

October 24 2005

USA and Europe Creating a "Digital Dump" from "Re-Use and Repair" Trade

Seattle, WA, Lagos, Nigeria - A new investigation by the toxic trade watchdog organization, Basel Action Network (BAN), has revealed that large quantities of obsolete computers, televisions, mobile phones, and other used electronic equipment exported from USA and Europe to Lagos, Nigeria for "re-use and repair" are ending up gathering dust in warehouses or being dumped and burned near residences in empty lots, roadsides and in swamps creating serious health and environmental contamination from the toxic leachate and smoke.

The photo-documentary report entitled "The Digital Dump: Exporting High-Tech Re-use and Abuse to Africa," exposes the ugly underbelly of what is thought to be an escalating global trade in toxic, obsolete, discarded computers and other e-scrap collected in North America and Europe and sent to developing countries by waste brokers and so-called recyclers. In Lagos, while there is a legitimate robust market and ability to repair and refurbish old electronic equipment including computers, monitors, TVs and cell phones, the local experts complain that of the estimated 500 40-foot containers shipped to Lagos each month, as much as 75% of the imports are "junk" and are not economically repairable or marketable. Consequently, this e-waste, which is legally a hazardous waste is being discarded and routinely burned in what the environmentalists call yet "another "cyber-age nightmare now landing on the shores of developing countries."

"Re-use is a good thing, bridging the digital divide is a good thing, but exporting loads of techno-trash in the name of these lofty ideals and seriously damaging the environment and health of poor communities in developing countries is criminal," said Jim Puckett, coordinator of BAN who led the field investigation.

The report includes evidence of numerous computer identification tags from schools and government agencies as well as forensic examinations of hard-drives picked up by BAN in Lagos, revealing very personal information about their previous owners.. According to BAN, much of this trade is illegal under international rules governing trade in toxic waste such as the Basel Convention, but governments, particularly the United States refuses to ratify, implement or properly enforce these rules for toxic electronic waste. Proper enforcement of these rules would require all such e-scrap exports, whole or in parts to be properly tested for functionality and certified to be going to re-use destinations rather than for disposal or recycling.

"Things are completely out of control," said Puckett. "Manufacturers have got to get toxic chemicals out of electronic goods, governments have got to start enforcing international law, and we consumers have got to be a lot more careful about what our local "recycler" is really doing. It's time we all get serious about what is now a tsunami of toxic techno-trash making its way from rich to poorer countries, and start taking some responsibility."

Following the publication of a report on their previous investigation in China, entitled Exporting Harm: The High-Tech Trashing of Asia, BAN, together with the Computer TakeBack Campaign initiated the E-Stewards Program in North America which now has over 30 member recycling companies that have pledged to uphold the world's most rigorous standards for social and environmental responsibility in e-waste management. For more information contact:

Jim Puckett, BAN: Phone: office: 1.206.652.5555, cell: 1.206.354.0391, jpuckett@ban.org

Sarah Westervelt, or Richard Gutierrez, BAN: 1.206.652.5555, swestervelt@ban.org, rgutierrez@ban.org

Photos and Report available at: http://www.ban.org/ or www.e-takeback.org/Press/pressinfo. htm

Briefing from the Computer Takeback Campaign (US):

The problem of outdated, unwanted computers is huge -- and growing still.

Studies estimate that 315 to 600 million desktop and laptop computers in the U.S. will soon be obsolete. Discarded computers and other consumer electronics (so called e-waste) are the fastest growing portion of our waste stream -- growing almost 3 times faster than our overall municipal waste stream. One report estimates that a pile of these obsolete computers would reach a mile high and cover six acres. That's the same as a 22-story pile of e-waste covering the entire 472 square miles of the City of Los Angeles.

Discarded computers and electronics are toxic hazardous waste. The 315 million or more computers that have or will become obsolete contain a total of more than 1.2 billion pounds of lead. About 40% of the heavy metals, including lead, mercury and cadmium, in landfills come from electronic equipment discards. The health effects of lead are well known; just 1/70th of a teaspoon of mercury can contaminate 20 acres of a lake, making the fish unfit to eat.

Recycling computers isn't like recycling old cardboard. Less than 10% of discarded computers are currently recycled. What happens to the rest? Many older computers are either stored (in basements, garages, offices, closets and homes awaiting a decision) or increasingly tossed out with the trash out of ignorance of the hazards contained in them.

And what about the 10% that are recycled? Some discarded equipment is handled by firms that operate under strict environmental controls and high worker safety protections. Many other firms do not operate under strict controls, removing the valuable metals from the equipment and sending the remaining scrap to landfills or incinerators. Without adequate protections, workers dismantling discarded electronic equipment are exposed to many chemical compounds with known and suspected negative health effects. Considerably more equipment -- one estimate sets the figure as high as 80% of collected e-waste -- is shipped overseas for dismantling under horrific conditions, poisoning the people, land, air, and water in China, other Asian nations, and possibly Mexico as well.

Electronic recycling operations are increasingly active within America's prison systems. Inmate laborers are not automatically afforded the same degree of worker health and safety protections as are people employed on the outside, nor are they paid comparable wages. Moreover, reliance on high tech chain gangs may frustrate development of the free market infrastructure necessary to safely manage our mountains of e-waste. Prisons are also taxpayer-supported institutions.

Corporate practice and public policy have failed to address the problems. At present, the cost of managing discarded computers and electronics falls on taxpayers and local governments. Local governments, private agencies, and individual consumers have been handed the most responsibility for responding to the e-waste crisis, but have the least power to compel manufacturers to do anything about it. Brand owners and manufacturers in the U.S. have dodged their responsibility for management of products at the end of their useful life, while public policy has failed to promote producer take back, clean design, and clean production. Taxpayers are paying dearly for the consequences of manufacturing choices they did not make and over which they have little control.

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