Obsolete televisions, computers, mobile phones and other electronic equipment which is exported for “re-use and repair”, often ends up gathering dust in warehouses or being dumped and burned in streets and empty lots in towns and cities, creating serious health and environmental contamination.

A large amount of this waste is actually being sent over to developing countries by legitimate waste brokers and so-called recyclers in developed nations with much of the equipment coming from schools and government agencies.

A new study into the export of e-waste by the Basel Action Network (BAN) has exposed some of the dangers inherent in this global trade. It found that, in Lagos in Nigeria, while there is a legitimate robust market and ability to repair and refurbish old electronic equipment, the local experts complain that as much as 75% of the imports are “junk” and not economically repairable or marketable.

As a result, much of this waste, which is technically hazardous, is being discarded and routinely burned.

Jim Puckett, co-ordinator of BAN who led the field investigation said: “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.”

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 the rules.

Jim Puckett said that this trade highlighted the need to speed up such legislation as ROHS which would see certain toxic chemicals removed from electronic equipment.

The report highlights the fact that, what is often expressed as a ‘win-win’ situation is anything but as richer countries lose the opportunity to enable their own national recycling infrastructure, cleaner technologies and the development of innovative designs to prevent further toxics use, while at the same time, the developing countries are increasingly victimised by a disproportionate burden of the world’s toxic e-waste.

The BAN report details a number of incidents of formal and informal dumps where toxins are easily leached into the near-surface groundwater, and are routinely burned, emitting airborne toxic chemicals such as dioxins, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and heavy metals.

“Things are completely out of control. 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,” he said. “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.”

David Hopkins

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie