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Digital Dumping and the Global ‘E-Cycling’ Scam
Posted on Nov 10, 2009
The next time you get a scam mail from Nigeria, don’t ask me how the scammer got your information, especially if you don’t know where your old PC is. Yes, the one you gave to a recycler or dropped off with a charity for a tax deduction after “erasing” your data. It turns out that erasing data or reformatting your hard disk does not completely eliminate data.
The Basel Action Network (BAN), a group that monitors the movement of electronic waste around the world, gathered hard-drive memory devices from old computers exported to Nigeria and had them analyzed by forensic data recovery experts. What did it find? It found personal e-mail correspondence, country reports, business letters, banking information, databases, personal letters discussing private legal matters, resumés, disciplinary letters and other cans of worms—all from computers that have been discarded by their owners.
BAN attests that “while many people assume that recyclers will clean their hard drives of data before sending them to reuse facilities, many of the hard drives recovered from computers in Lagos contained a great deal of confidential information.”
About 20 million computers are discarded in the United States annually. The federal government alone disposes of 10,000 computers weekly. The advent of flat-screen monitors and digital technology in televisions and advancements in practically every type of consumer electronics device certainly translates into an increase in e-waste generation.
And have you ever wondered where the discarded equipment goes? “We may think we are doing the right thing by giving our old electronics to a recycler or a free collection event,” says Sarah Westerville, BAN’s e-Stewardship program director. “But many of those businesses calling themselves recyclers are little more than international waste distributors. They take your electronic items for free, or pocket your recycling fee, and then simply load them onto a sea-going container, and ship them to China, India or Nigeria.”
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The Basel Action Network investigated Nigeria’s e-waste situation and detailed its findings in a shocking report. “We saw people using e-waste to fill in swamps. Whenever the piles got too high, they would torch them. Residents complained about breathing the fumes. We saw kids roaming barefoot over this material, not to mention chicken and goats, which wind up in the local diet.”
According to the report, materials at the dump are a dangerous mix of toxic ash, broken CRT glass, dead animals, medical wastes, used chemical containers and food scraps, which creates conditions for contamination and infection.
BAN investigators attest that Lagos residents complain that they constantly breathe in fumes from these fires. Most of them do not know that they are faced with any danger from inhaling these highly hazardous emissions of brominated and chlorinated dioxins, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and heavy metal emissions.
BAN warns that as gruesome as the findings are, they may represent only the tip of the iceberg. Because there is virtually no data concerning the global e-waste trade, the components of e-waste are usually shrouded in mystery. So no one knows for sure what else may be in the mix.
The growth of Nigeria’s IT sector depends on the importation of secondhand electronics from rich countries. Many import-export businesses have sprung up to support this industry. Many charitable organizations have also taken up the task of bridging the digital divide between Nigerians and citizens of the West with donations of electronics.
It has, however, turned out that the computers, phones, televisions and other high-tech equipment that are touted as tools to bridge the digital divide are actually digital waste, as most of them are broken or hopelessly obsolete.
John Oboro, an official of the Computer and Allied Products Dealers Association of Nigeria, said in a BBC report that there are far more bad computers coming in than good. “The systems coming in are junk,” he says. “They are no good for us. The things are not serviceable; obsolete, they are of no economic value. Honestly speaking, 75 percent is junk.”
In customs documents, the computers are described as being “shipped for reuse.” BAN coordinator Jim Puckett says that dubious exporters exploit the reuse category to increase their profits and offload their environmental responsibilities.
According to Puckett, “Unscrupulous exporters from the North are intentionally mixing bad with good so that they are able to avoid disposal costs. Usually when you bring a computer to a recycler, you pay a fee. But brokers will take this fee, and instead of recycling, will mix in some good equipment and trade it. Exporters say it is working equipment to help the poor to bridge the digital divide, but what we’ve observed is not bridging the digital divide but the creation of a digital dump.”
The problem of digital dumping brings back bad memories in Nigeria, where one of the first cases of toxic waste dumping took place in 1987. Eighteen thousand drums of hazardous waste labeled “construction materials” were shipped to the country from Italy and stored in the backyard of an unsuspecting landlord for about $100 a month. They were later found to be PCBs, dioxins and asbestos. The barrels soon started leaking. The landowner died of throat cancer and the community has lived with the toxic legacy since then. The international outcry that ensued led to the creation of the Basel Convention.
Puckett, the BAN coordinator who led the organization’s field investigation to Nigeria, notes that “reuse 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.”
There are more than 1,000 substances involved in e-waste pollution and many of them are highly toxic. Lead, cadmium, mercury, polyvinyl chloride, barium, beryllium and phosphor are among the most toxic.
Lead accumulates in plants, animals and microorganisms. It targets the human central nervous system. It can cause permanent damage to the brain and nervous system, causing retardation and behavioral changes. Infants and young children are particularly susceptible because of the impairment of cognitive and behavioral development it can cause.
Renal damage is the most common effect of cadmium toxicity. Cadmium enters the system through the gastrointestinal tract and resides in human kidneys.
Mercury transforms into methylmercury in water, where it can accumulate in living organisms, eventually concentrating in large fish and humans at the top of the food chain. Mercury is readily absorbed by the human body, ultimately inhibiting enzymatic activity and leading to cell damage.
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