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Digital Dumping and the Global 'E-Cycling' Scam

Gbemisola Olujobi
Contributor
A journalist since 1984, Gbemisola Olujobi is the former Editor of the Living Section at The Guardian, Nigeria\'s biggest and most influential newspaper. The bulk of her work as a journalist has been in the…
Gbemisola Olujobi

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.”

About 500 40-foot shipping containers arrive at the port of Lagos in Nigeria every month loaded with old equipment. It is estimated that there are about 400,000 computers among this assortment of electronics. However, only 25 percent of them are reusable or repairable. As in most African countries, there is no waste management, collection or recycling program in Nigeria. What becomes of the unusable and unrepairable electronics is better left to the imagination.

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.

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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