Thousands of discarded computers from western Europe and the US arrive in the ports of west Africa every day, ending up in massive toxic dumps where children burn and pull them apart to extract metals for cash.
The dumping of the developed world’s electronic trash, or e-waste, is in direct contravention of international legislation and is causing serious health problems for inhabitants of the shanty towns that have sprung up amid the smouldering dumps in Lagos and Accra.
Campaigners believe unscrupulous scrap merchants are illegally dumping millions of tonnes of dangerous waste on the developing world under the guise of exporting it for use in schools and hospitals. They are calling for better policing of the ban on exports of e-waste, which can release lead, mercury and other dangerous chemicals.
“Ghana is increasingly becoming a dumping ground for waste from Europe and the US,” according to Mike Anane, director of the League of Environmental Journalists in Ghana. “The people that break open these monitors tell me that they suffer from nausea, headaches and respiratory problems.”
More than half a million computers arrive in Lagos every month but only about one in four works. The rest are sold as scrap, smashed up and burned.
“Millions of tons of e-waste disappears from the developed world every year and continues to reappear in developing countries, despite international bans,” according to Luke Upchurch from Consumers International, which represents more than 220 consumer groups in 115 countries.
The illegal trade in e-waste is highly lucrative. It is possible to extract more gold out of a tonne of electronic circuitry than from a tonne of gold-bearing rock. But illegal dumping is putting at risk charities and other organizations that donate second-hand equipment to the developing world.
Since the introduction of the Basle Ban outlawing the export of hazardous waste from developed to less developed countries in 1992, computers have become an everyday item. Consumers and businesses are replacing their kit at an ever increasing rate, creating a new waste mountain.
Six years ago the EU produced the waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) directive, which introduced new curbs and restrictions on the movement of e-waste. The directive, which came into effect in Britain in January last year, heavily regulates the movement of e-waste for recycling and bans its export for disposal. It also introduced a scheme under which the cost of properly disposing of electronic equipment put on the market after August 2005 must be picked up by the producers of the waste — manufacturers, retailers, branders and importers.
But DanWatch, a partner organization of Consumers International, has evidence that computer equipment from British companies and even local authorities is being dumped in west Africa.
“We filmed children as young as six searching for metal scraps in the earth, which was littered with the toxic waste from thousands of shattered cathode ray tubes,” said Benjamin Holst, cofounder of DanWatch.
“A whole community is virtually living and working in this highly toxic environment, which is growing every day,” he said.
Properly functioning computer equipment is exempt from the WEEE rules about export. In fact the regulations encourage refurbishment and re-use of computer equipment. But there is no regime that checks computer equipment destined for re-use before it is shipped overseas.