Your e-waste's journey to Africa
by Mark I Levenstein, Foreign Policy
28 November 2006 –
Where do electronics go when they die? Increasingly to Africa, according to a recent article in Environmental Health Perspectives. Every month, exporters contracted by electronics recyclers send about 500 containers filled with used electronic equipment to Lagos, Nigeria, alone. The 40-foot containers can be shipped from the United States for about $5,000 and high tariffs are easily avoided when the contents, up to 75 percent of which are unsalvagable, are classified as "scrap."
Even with so much junk, Nigerian importers are able to make a quick buck because of high local demand for electronic goods—Pentium III computers sell for about $130 and a 27-inch television will set you back around $50. The remainder, equivalent to approximately 100,000 computers per month, ends up in dumps and landfills. That electronic waste (e-waste) is chock-full of pollutants like lead, cadmium and mercury that then seep into the ground and water supply. When the mounds of waste get too high, they are burned, releasing toxins from the plastic casings into the air. (For more about how we're destroying Africa with waste, check out Travis's post, The Global Village's Septic Tank.)
Although both the 1989 Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal, which the United States has not signed, and the U.S. Resource and Recovery Act bar the export of e-waste, both have exceptions for "recycling." Thus, they leave room for the less scrupulous. In the United States, the only companies that can be trusted to safely recycle, reuse, and dispose of electronic goods are those listed by the Environmental Protection Agency as Plug-In to eCycling Partners or by the Basel Action Network as E-Stewards. So, before you throw away your electronic goods, it might be a good idea to look into where they are headed.
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