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Digital Dumping and the Global ‘E-Cycling’ Scam
Posted on Nov 10, 2009
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.
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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