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Digital Dumping and the Global ‘E-Cycling’ Scam

Posted on Nov 10, 2009
digital dump
AP / Elizabeth Dalziel

Toxic trash: Heaps of electronic waste at a dump in Guiyu, China. Huge amounts of high-tech junk from Western nations end up in China and elsewhere after being exported to Africa, where so-called e-cycling is causing major problems.

By Gbemisola Olujobi

(Page 2)

Plastics are disposed of through landfills, incinerators and open burning, allowing toxic substances to leach into the environment.

The BAN investigative team found in Nigeria a small enterprise of e-waste recovery for export to China, and this is no less dangerous than dumping and burning. CRTs (cathode ray tubes) are cracked with screwdriver-like hammers to get to the copper-laden yokes. The resulting implosion releases phosphor and other hazardous chemicals such as cadmium. The workers take no precautions and breathe in the vapor without the slightest idea of the danger they are in.

Felix Ebegbulem breaks up computers and other electronics for whatever useful things may be found in them at the Computer Village in Lagos. The Computer Village is reputed to be the largest information and communications technology (ICT) accessories market in Africa. It is an apocalypse of used computers, photocopiers, compact disks, cameras and sundry electronics struggling for space and utilization. There are piles and piles of computers of every make and model everywhere you turn.

“No one knew these things were harmful until some white men came and told us about the dangers,” Ebegbulem says with a careless smile. He sips a brown liquid from a sachet of herbal concoctions at intervals. He has just recovered from what he believes was a bout of flu. And even after being told that his illness may be more serious than he thought, he shrugs off the suggestion. “Man must survive,” he says, making a case for choosing between hunger and risks.

Researchers at Nigeria’s University of Ibadan have warned of a “chemical time bomb scenario.” Landfills and garbage dumps, which serve as dumping and incineration sites, are not lined or monitored for leachate recovery. Because the water level in Lagos is high (groundwater is just a meter or two below the surface), the water from these landfills is readily available to the groundwater supply.

Professor Oladele Osibanjo of the University of Ibadan warns that a toxic legacy is being created.

“We’ve found excess heavy metals in the soil, as well as in plants and people who eat vegetables,” he says. “That has a lot of social health implications. You have grazing animals, people picking vegetables and eating them, and then the drinking water containing these toxins.”

According to the BBC report, children scavenge in these dumps. While they can earn around $2 a day by collecting components, they are putting their health at serious risk. These toxic substances could lead to cancers affecting the lungs and almost every other part of the body.

The Basel Convention aims to prevent hazardous wastes from being dumped in the developing world. And where they are exported for their economic value (for reuse and recycling), the convention mandates exporting countries to ensure that hazardous wastes are managed in an environmentally sound manner in the country of import.

The Basel Convention could as well be nonexistent as far as Nigeria’s e-waste scenario is concerned. According to Osibanjo and Chidi Nnorom, another biomedical expert, Nigeria, like most developing nations, does not have a program or indeed the capacity to test secondhand electronics for functionality before they are imported. There is no infrastructure for the recycling or appropriate management of e-waste following the principles of sustainable consumption/development. There is also lack of funds and investment to finance e-scrap recycling. Nigeria clearly does not have the capacity to manage the e-waste that the developed world ships to it under the guise of “reuse” and “recycle.”

Despite international treaties and conventions, which ban the export of waste from rich to poor countries, about 10.2 million units of computers are exported from the United States to developing nations every year. Apart from Afghanistan, Haiti and the United States, all 164 signatory countries have ratified the Basel Convention. Whereas Haiti and Afghanistan are two of the poorest countries in the world and have little contribution to e-waste, the United States generates the most e-waste globally.

Because waste may be exported for reuse and recycling under the treaties, U.S. shippers hide behind the “recycle and reuse” clause to “legally” send e-waste wherever they wish. The U.S. Resource Conservation and Recovery Act also allows the export of materials as long as the goal is “recycling.” Unscrupulous and largely unregulated recyclers therefore have a lot of space for illegal maneuvers.

“Things are completely out of control,” Puckett concludes. “Manufacturers have got to get toxic chemicals out of electronic goods, governments have got to start enforcing international law, and we consumers have got to be a lot more careful about what our local ‘recycler’ is really doing.”

The U.N. has called for an end to Western countries using Africa as a landfill for useless electronics. Nick Nuttall, spokesman of the U.N.’s Environment Program (UNEP), has described hazardous waste dumping in poor countries by Western nations as “a scar on the conscience of the international community.”

Biomed expert, Osibanjo, admonishes developed countries to “try to love their neighbor as themselves, and not give to their neighbor the things they don’t want.”

Nigerian computer dealer, Oboro, argues that the responsibility lies not just with the U.S. government but with Americans looking for cheap and easy ways to get rid of outmoded equipment.

“Americans should not leave their e-waste only for the black man to manage,” he says.



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By banner design, March 24, 2011 at 8:06 am Link to this comment
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I am reading more about this site .

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By gerard, November 12, 2009 at 5:44 pm Link to this comment

In the capitalist countries, which dominate the world by exploitation, buying and selling, to get wealth is the only goal.  This system, based on individualism, selfishness, isolation, has been functioning for centuries.  Just now its weaknesses and evils are becoming too apparent to ignore, yet changing routine habits and attitudes will be difficult and take time.  Unfortunately, time is shortened by the huge problems “hitting the fan” at the same time—pollution, global warming, waste, massive poverty, exponential population growth, and resistance to change based on fear and religious and social non-sense.  So ...”

The best that can be hoped is that those who understand these problems and are willing to accept responsibility for solving them must serve for the rest of their lives, wherever they are, on an “each one teach one” basis every chance they get. 

To teach means to love, to make friends, to respect people who are different, who know less, who do not understand easily, who are afraid of change, who lack education, who don’t like big words, who are self-conscious, shy, resistant, stubborn, angry.  To teach is to help people change, not make fun of them, insult them, or treat them condescendingly. To teach is extremely hard work.

Every day leads to tomorrow.

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By mandinka, November 12, 2009 at 9:08 am Link to this comment

blacksphere, I’ve seen a lot of French Weapons in Africa… They are easy to spot they have a tag on them when shipped ” never fired dropped only once”

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By the tshirt doctor, November 12, 2009 at 9:03 am Link to this comment


why thank you very much.  i try!!!

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By Watson, November 11, 2009 at 11:47 pm Link to this comment
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Yet another example of how recycling can be abusive because it makes supposedly progressive people in First-World countries feel good about buying another toxic electronic product.

Here’s the solution: Don’t follow trends and use what you have until it explodes. In CA, 40,000 cell phones are throw away—per day. That’s immoral.

Remember the three R’s—re-use, reduce and recycle. There’s a reason recycling is the last in line.

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By Blackspeare, November 11, 2009 at 2:54 pm Link to this comment

the tshirt doctor…

Nicely informative blog you have.  You may be aware of this, but when I was working in France many years ago, they enacted regulations that France could not dispose of its sewage sludge on the African continent.  Like the US did in dumping sewage sludge passed the 100 mile limit in the ocean, France was doing virtually the same thing hauling barges laden with sludge across the Mediterranean to Africa.  The regulations put a sudden stop to that practice and now they treat their sewage by-products within the borders of France——and do it rather effectively.

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By the tshirt doctor, November 11, 2009 at 8:11 am Link to this comment

i wrote about the problems Africa receives from the west.

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By Blackspeare, November 10, 2009 at 6:59 pm Link to this comment

Never, ever recycle your computer to anyone without first removing the RAM and the HD.  Break the RAM board(s) in half and throw in the trash.  If you’re mechanical take the HD apart and smash the discs and throw the pieces in the trash.  If you’re not mechanical, take a five lb hammer and completely crush the HD and throw it in the trash.  Now you can recycle your computer.

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By PatrickHenry, November 10, 2009 at 5:30 pm Link to this comment

I am a advocate for recycling all things and old computers, monitors, printers fit that bill.  I would hope American hackers got my data, so I could prosecute them here.

Mine a ton of ore and and be lucky to get an ounce of silver and gold, mine a ton of old PC’s and get five.  Rare earth metals are also present and in demand and whose cost will only rise.

A National recycling plan is needed and could provide the necessary jobs and incentives for business which are sorely needed now.

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