In a dump outside the Alaba Market in Lagos, Nigeria, children scavenge for anything of value amid mounds of smoldering computer monitors and broken television sets. People here complain of fumes, but most remain unaware of the extreme health hazards caused by burning carcinogens and toxins in discarded electronic equipment.
At another site in Lagos, old television carcasses are pushed by the hundreds into a swamp, to be used as landfill for a new road. These scenes and more are included in “The Digital Dump: Exporting High-Tech Re-use and Abuse to Africa,” a new photo-documentary report that presents mounting evidence of an alarming new trend: Under the guise of bridging the digital divide, affluent nations are using developing countries as toxic waste dumps for their unwanted electronics.
The report, produced by the Basel Action Network, a Seattle-based toxic trade watchdog organization, focuses on Nigeria, where large quantities of obsolete electronic equipment–cell phones, computers and televisions–are exported from the United States and Europe to Lagos for “re-use and repair.” Much of this equipment ends up unused in warehouses or, worse, is disposed of (often burned) in environmentally irresponsible and unsafe ways. Moreover, the situation in Lagos is representative of much of the developing world. In 2002 a BAN investigation explored similar toxic waste disposal issues in Asia.
The concept of recycling outdated or unwanted electronic equipment in the Third World may sound idealistic, but the actual practice is far from benevolent. In the United States alone, an estimated 100 million computers will become obsolete next year, contributing to what is the fastest growing waste stream in the industrialized world–e-waste. In theory, those who are too poor to buy new equipment benefit from those who are eager to get rid of theirs. Developing nations can bypass problems due to lack of infrastructure by way of this secondhand technology. But poorer nations on the receiving end of the “recycling” program don’t necessarily reap the benefits from these electronic discards.
In Nigeria, there are repair facilities for hand-me-down equipment, not to mention a market that values the working electronics, but most of the electronic castoffs have not been pretested for functionality. Up to 75 percent of the hardware in the estimated 500 forty-foot containers that arrive on the shores of Lagos each month is beyond repair. And developing nations are ill prepared to deal with mountains of toxic waste, thrown into dump sites in the poorest areas, according to the BAN report, “all of which are unlined, unmonitored, close to the groundwater and routinely set afire.”
Besides damage to the environment and human health, there is also the issue of privacy of information. BAN was able to retrieve personal data off the hard drives of some of the imports, implicating specific institutions, several countries and an array of electronics manufacturers as perpetrators of this toxic trade.
The main problem in the United States, according to Richard Gutierrez, a toxics policy analyst at BAN, is that “there are no controls being implemented by the federal government–none.” In fact, these goods are not even recognized by the federal government as hazardous waste. In North America, more than thirty recycling companies have signed the E-Stewards Campaign pledge set forth by BAN with the Computer Takeback Campaign to uphold rigorous standards of responsibility for e-waste management. But by failing to regulate the exportation of what certainly comprises hazardous waste on a mass scale, the United States undermines these local initiatives to deal with e-waste responsibly.
As with global warming and compliance with the Kyoto Protocols, the United States is decidedly out of step with the rest of the world on e-waste. Fifteen years ago, a UN treaty called the Basel Convention was adopted to regulate the movement of hazardous materials across international borders. Since that time 166 countries, including seven of the G-8 nations, have ratified it. The United States, along with Haiti and Afghanistan, have yet to follow suit. While our government waits, the rest of the world has also accepted the Basel Ban, a more recent amendment to the convention that specifically prohibits hazardous waste exports from the twenty-nine wealthiest, most industrialized nations, where 90 percent of global hazardous waste is produced, to poorer nations.
Member states of the European Union and Australia have made great strides in dealing with e-waste responsibly within their own borders, refusing to force it on the backs of other nations. Instead, when old electronics are broken down into components, usable parts are reintroduced into new materials. Trash is disposed of in proper landfills, not informal dumps. In Australia goods are exported only if they are functioning and properly packaged. (For an in-depth look at what happens to some electronic discards that remain in the United States, see Elizabeth Grossman’s “Toxic Recycling” in the November 21 issue of The Nation.)
But even in countries with progressive policies, there is the problem of enforcement. Hazardous waste exports slip by when no one is looking, as evidenced by the European monitors gathering dust in Lagos. On the receiving end in Lagos, most importers do not declare their goods, and as Olaketin Ogungbuyi, chief environmental scientist at the Federal Ministry of the Environment in Nigeria, said, “There is no means, there is no system to monitor them at the port or at the border.”
Pretesting and labeling exports costs money, and in the United States, it is cheaper to export e-waste than seek forward-thinking alternatives, especially when immense profits stand to be made by participants in the flourishing toxic trade. As Ovie Oghenekaro, general manager of the Ibru Warehouse in Nigeria, put it, all that the receiving nations want is for exporting nations to “treat us like human beings” and “give us working [equipment]…like the ones they have in their country.”
By turning a blind eye to the environmental damage and health hazards, the United States is also missing the chance to build its own electronics recycling infrastructure. All facets of the system need to be overhauled; governmental legislation is not enough. All participants in the consumer process should be held accountable. Manufacturers must develop alternatives to the toxic chemicals in their electronic products, and consumers must be far more diligent about what they do with their trash. And in the meantime, countries on the receiving end of this environmental injustice, like Nigeria, must begin to create environmentally sound waste management systems to keep toxic chemicals out of their drinking water.