Old computers never die they end up somewhere in Africa

Dumping of toxic waste and unwantables in Africa has been going on for years and continues despite it being illegal since 1992. In 1998 the EU implemented a ban on the exportation of hazardous waste from the West to the developing world, although the USA, Canada and New Zealand refused to sign. Just after the tsunami of December 2004, barrels of medical and chemical waste left on the shores of Somalia were broken open and the contents spilled. Some of the waste had been there since the early 1980s when warlords received large payments from the West to dump the waste, which came mainly from Switzerland and Italy. More recently an international plan to bring waste from the West to be dumped in Somalia was exposed during the investigation into the death of an Italian journalist.

In the late 1980s large amounts of toxic waste from Italy were found on Koko Beach, Delta State in Nigeria, resulting in burns, vomiting blood and partial paralysis by those who came into contact with it. In 2006 a Dutch ship dumped tons of caustic washings, used to clean oil drums, on Abidjan leaving people complaining of nausea, headaches and vomiting.  After years of litigation A Dutch Court ordered Trafigura to pay a fine of 1 million euros for illegally dumping the chemical waste and the company agreed to pay $50 million to people affected by the poison.  Nonetheless the company still denies responsibility for dumping of the waste or injuries incurred.

To a large extent dumping of  toxic chemical waste has been replaced by  toxic electronic waste: computers and mobile phones which contain cadmium, lead, mercury and other poisons.   The figures are astounding: millions of tonnes leave Europe each year, so where does it go? Mainly to Africa, often under the guise of ‘charitable donations’, where it is ends up in  landfills and ponds and is broken down into parts such as copper wire, circuit boards and resold .  Still a good deal ends up being burnt, sending out huge quantities of lead and mercury which then enter the food chain.

According to a report published by the Basel Action Network and the Silicon Valley Toxins Coalition titled ‘Exporting Harm: The Techno-Trashing of Asia’, between 50 to 80 per cent of e-waste collected for recycling in the United States is exported to the global south, India and Pakistan as well as China.  Another report,  this time by GreenPeace claims more than 15,000 tonnes of colour television sets were exported from the EU to African countries in 2005. On average 35 tonnes, or more than 1000 units of used television sets, arrive every day in Ghana, Nigeria or Egypt. ‘It would appear that the EU exports a significant quantity of used electrical and electronic products to developing countries that do not have an adequate waste management infrastructure,’ the EEA report ‘Waste Without Borders’ concluded. ‘These are then probably subject to treatment that poses a threat to the environment and human health.’

The dumps become ‘working’ areas for poor people, mainly children searching for scraps of metal and other bits they can sell. Every month about 500,000 used computers arrive in Lagos alone, with only a small percentage working and the rest ending up as toxic waste. NGOs, businesses, unscrupulous local businessmen but most of all the EU are complicit in the trade of electronic waste arriving in West Africa from Europe as this video shows.

There are  also the huge amounts of local waste produced  in African and countries have not yet begun to take recyling seriously.   Plastic bags  are  probably the main environmental and educational challenge faced by many countries. In Nigeria alone there are simply millions of them everywhere, including the sea. Beaches that 10 years ago were clean and bag free are now full of black and blue and white plastic bags; mountains of plastic rubbish — bags, bottles, containers — litter the roadside.    Earlier this year large quantities of lead were found in the blood of school children.  Though the lead was thought to have been due to contaminated water and crops it was found that the closer to children lived to the rubbish dumps in the town, the higher the levels of lead were found in their blood.   It’s hard not to think that this is replicated in other cities and countries particularly in high density urban areas.

Finally some positive news – one shipping company [RMR] operating from the UK to Nigeria and in conjunction with the Nigerian Environmental Agency are putting  blanket ban on the shipping of all electronic waste. Nonetheless there is still a long way to go as for example only last month a Scottish newspaper reported thousands of tons of toxic waste were being illegally  exported to Africa and Asia.  There is clearly huge amounts of money to be made in the illegal trade but African need to take on the responsibility of ending the practice and if Nigeria manages to implement the fines it promises then hopefully things will improve.