GOING GREEN // Africa as a Global Dumping Ground
by Alex Rose-Innes
Africa as a Global Dumping Ground
While African leaders are demanding tougher laws to end the influx of electronic waste amid renewed concerns over toxic components, horror stories continue to find their way into the press, as the continent stills seems to be regarded as the Western world’s dumping ground.
African countries recently adopted an international convention on hazardous waste and called for uniform action to end the import of discarded electronic goods containing dangerous components. In some cases, the products are sent as donations for reuse, even though they are no longer useful. Also, it is cheaper for European countries to dump old computers and mobile telephones elsewhere, as stringent environmental laws make exporting used goods cheaper than disposing of them at home.
In response to the trade in e-waste, the European Union (EU) took steps in 2012 to strengthen its export laws to prevent the dumping of electronic goods in Africa. But now, for the first time, African parties have by themselves called for rigorous action to prevent e-waste dumping, according to the Basel Action Network, which campaigns against the trade in toxic waste.
Under the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive, EU countries will have to recover 45 tonnes of e-waste for every 100 tonnes of electronic goods sold by 2016, rising to 65% of sales by 2019 – or 85% of all e-waste generated. Newer member countries get an extension until 2021. This will include solar panels, fluorescent lighting containing mercury, and equipment containing ozone-depleting substances. EU countries had until 14 February 2014 to adopt the directive into their national laws, but not all First World countries have signed the treaty.
Barely one-third of e-waste items are recycled at home, researchers say. The bulk goes into landfills. But thousands of tonnes of electronic goods are exported, because second-hand computer components and recycled metals are lucrative commodities for poorer countries. The United Nations (UN) Environment Programme’s 2012 report, Where Are WEEE in Africa, states that approximately 220 000 tonnes of electrical and electronic goods were shipped from the EU to West Africa in 2009.
In Ghana, 30% of imports of allegedly second-hand products were useless, despite EU efforts calling for electronic goods to have some reusable value. Overall, the UN report shows that about 85% of containers arriving in Ghana with electrical and electronic goods came from Europe, with 4% from Asia.
Authorities say illicit waste is typically hidden in containers carrying legitimate cargo to thwart customs inspections. The UN Environment Programme has called for better controls in Africa, where the home-grown e-waste problem is also growing. In a related waste export matter, the EU is moving to end the practice of ‘beaching’ old ships in foreign countries.
Still, Western corporations are exploiting legal loopholes to dump their waste in Africa. And not too long ago, in the Ivory Coast, the price was death and disease for thousands. Poor Ivorians who live near the biggest landfill in Abidjan, the people of Akouedo, are used to having rubbish dumped on their doorstep. Trucks unload broken glass, rotting food and used syringes and children look for scraps of metal and old clothes to sell for a few cents.
The World Health Organization (WHO) had to send emergency supplies to the country as thousands of people sought treatment for nausea, vomiting and headaches, queuing for hours at hastily set up clinics. Many died. The reason? The tragedy ensued after a ship chartered by a Dutch company offloaded 400 tonnes of gasoline, water, and caustic washings used to clean oil drums. The cargo was dumped at Akouedo and at least 10 other sites around the city, including a channel leading to a lake, at roadsides and on open ground. The liquids began to emit fumes of hydrogen sulphide, petroleum distillates and sodium hydroxides across the city. As the tidy-up operation begins, environmental groups have begun to ask how this occurred.
According to the toxics coordinator for Greenpeace, it was thought that the determination of African countries to stamp the trade out had helped yield results. That this has happened again was labelled ‘extraordinary’.
This story is a common one. All down the West African coast, ships registered in America and Europe unload containers filled with old computers and used medical equipment. Scrap merchants, corrupt politicians and underpaid civil servants take charge of this rubbish and, for a few dollars, will dump it off coastlines and on landfill sites. In the 1980s, Africa was Europe’s most popular dumping ground, with radioactive waste and toxic chemicals foisted on landowners.
And now there is a new threat – the dumping of electronic waste, or e-waste: unwanted mobile phones, computers and printers, which contain cadmium, lead, mercury and other poisons. More than 20-million computers become obsolete in America alone each year. The UK generates almost 2-million tonnes of electronic waste. Disposing of this in America and Europe costs money, so many companies sell it to middle merchants, who promise that the computers can be reused in Africa, China and India. Each month about 500 container loads, containing about 400 000 unwanted computers, arrive in Nigeria to be processed. But 75 % of units shipped to Nigeria cannot be resold.
“There is a tradition of burning rubbish all over Africa, but this new burning of electronic equipment is incredibly dangerous,” said Sarah Westervelt of the Basel Action Network, a pressure group monitoring the trade in hazardous waste.
The UN Environment Programme estimates that, worldwide, 20-million to 50-million tonnes of electronics are discarded each year. Less than 10% gets recycled and half or more ends up overseas. As Western technology becomes cheaper and the latest machine comes to be regarded as a disposable fashion statement, this dumping will only intensify. Although it is illegal to ship hazardous waste out of Europe, old electronic items can be sent to developing countries for ‘recycling’.
On the outskirts of Ghana’s biggest city sits a smouldering wasteland, a slum carved into the banks of the Korle Lagoon, one of the most polluted bodies of water on earth. The locals call it Sodom and Gomorrah. Agbogbloshie has become one of the world’s digital dumping grounds, where the West’s electronic waste, or e-waste, piles up – hundreds of millions of tonnes of it each year.
When containers of old computers first began arriving in West Africa a few years ago, Ghanaians welcomed what they thought were donations to help bridge the digital divide. But soon exporters learnt to exploit the loopholes by labelling junk computers ‘donations’. These are from Germany, the UK and the USA, but this time the largest shipment came from one of America’s largest military contractors.
So where is it going to end? No one can say, but there is no doubt that, with electronic and electric usage all over the world, e-waste is going to become a bigger problem as time goes by and African countries will have to have stringent laws in place to safeguard not only the environmental future of the continent, but also the very lives of their own people.