Expert Commentary

U.N. report: Findings on e-Waste problems in Africa

2011 United Nations report on the ecological and economic impacts of electrical and electronics equipment recycling and disposal practices in West Africa.

Information communication technology (ICT) such as computers and cell phones has proliferated throughout the world, and many developing nations are consuming them at an increasing rate. Moreover, as such goods become technologically outdated in wealthier nations, they are often shipped to developing countries for refurbishment, recycling or disposal. However, such countries are sometimes ill-equipped to deal with the parts found in many products in an ecologically sound manner.

A 2011 report by the United Nations, “Where are WEee in Africa?” examined the ecological and economic impacts of electrical and electronics equipment (EEE) recycling and disposal practices in five West African countries: Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Liberia and Nigeria. Existing international law under the Basel Convention puts restrictions on the trans-boundary movement of hazardous wastes and their disposal, but it is not always respected.

Key study findings include:

  • Overall, some “70% of all imports to the five countries are used EEE, with 30% of the used EEE imported being determined to be non-functioning.” Used computers imported from Western countries account for between 10% and 70% of all ICT in these nations. Despite strict regulations governing the trade of damaged ICT, 30% to 50% of these items make their way to West Africa. Close to half are repaired, while the rest is recycled or discarded. Nigeria leads the region in e-waste volume, generating approximately 1.1 million tons annually.
  • “The U.K. is the dominant exporting country for EEE, followed with large gaps by France and Germany…. In the case of television receivers and monitors, it is apparent that German exports are sharply rising, while U.K. exports are declining. Both countries comprise nearly 100% of the television and monitor exports to West Africa.”
  • Almost all e-waste in the region ends up processed by a largely unregulated informal recycling industry. “Recycling activities often take place on unfortified ground where harmful substances released during dismantling are directly discharged to the soil.”
  • “Burning copper cables and wires, as well as monitor and TV casings, creates an accumulation of ash and partially burned materials at the burning sites. Insulating foam from dismantled refrigerators, primarily CFC-containing polyurethane, or old car tires are often used as the main fuels for the fires … contributing to acute chemical hazards and long-term contamination at the burning sites, as well as emitting ozone-depleting substances and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.”
  • Workers in the West African scrap metal and recycling industry contend with health risks ranging from cuts to spinal injuries and respiratory illnesses and a daily wage below the international poverty line of $1.25 a day. However, the workers “are mostly positive about their jobs and consider them as ‘prestigious’ and ‘high-tech.’ ”
  • Over the last decade, the penetration rate of personal computers in West Africa has increased tenfold, and the number of mobile phone subscribers has increased one hundred fold. “The amount of EEE consumed in Africa might seem negligible compared to the rest of the world [but] can produce significant amounts of waste electrical and electronic equipment.”

The report’s authors conclude that “altogether it is roughly estimated that during the past few years, at least 250,000 tons of e-waste per annum ‘illegally’ entered the ports of the five selected West African countries…. This number is comparable to the total amount of e-waste generated in small European countries such as Belgium or the Netherlands, and equates to approximately 5% of all e-waste generated in the European Union.”

Tags: pollution, recycling, greenhouse gases, Europe, telecommunications

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