Exported e-waste pollutes Africa
by Bill Lambrecht - Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau Chief, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
18 December 2006 (Lagos, Nigeria) –
Behind an outdoor market selling used computers, young men scavenge metal and plastic from a smoldering digital dump.
Near another computer market, lizards and goats cross paths on mounds of hollow monitors, smashed televisions and other electronic waste.
Africa's largest city, already plagued by sanitation woes, is becoming increasingly polluted as a result of unscrupulous brokers and American rules
that treat broken computers as products for export rather than junk.
Lagos offers perhaps the best example of the sort of burgeoning e-waste dumping that representatives of more than 120 countries addressed at a gathering in
Kenya this month. The group concluded that the issue "requires urgent action."
Three-fourths of the thousands of discarded American computers arriving in Nigeria each month are in bad shape or beyond repair, African business leaders
All this outmoded equipment — containing lead, cadmium, mercury and other contaminants — is creating dangerous messes that pollute land and air of one of
the world's poorest countries. Even computer dealers are outraged.
"People in the United States need to understand that we in this part of the world are human beings just like you," said John Oboro, deputy head of the
Computer and Allied Products Dealers Association of Nigeria.
The U.S. government not only permits the exports, but it also contributes to them.
In a Lagos warehouse, asset tags on dilapidated computers viewed by a Post-Dispatch reporter showed that some once belonged to the U.S. Department of
Energy and the U.S. Postal Service.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which regulates exports, issued new rules last summer requiring exporters to notify the government before making
shipments of computer monitors.
But the rules are unlikely to make much of a dent in the murky and largely unregulated trade in e-waste, with old computers sometimes passing through many
hands before winding up offshore.
Seated in his office overlooking a bustling Nigerian computer market, Oboro argued that the responsibility lies not just with the U.S. government but with
American people 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 said.
Path to pollution
With old computers, often the rule is: out of sight, out of mind. Many people don't realize when they discard computers, televisions and old cell phones — or
even donate them to a good cause — that the hardware can end up in a country where environmental standards are minimal or nonexistent.
An estimated 20 million computers are retired in the United States annually, and experts see more dumping on the horizon with the arrival of flat-screen
monitors and digital technology in televisions.
The federal government alone disposes of 10,000 computers weekly, sometimes donating them to schools under terms of an executive order from the Clinton
administration. If computers are deemed unusable, federal agencies can give them to a recycler, often the government-owned Federal Prison Industries, known
as UNICOR, which resells or donates 60 percent of the equipment it receives.
Missouri either auctions off surplus electronic equipment or donates it to schools or nonprofits after wiping information from hard drives.
Illinois is among the states whose government computers have ended up in Nigeria. In October, it became the first Midwestern state to adopt a computer
recycling policy. Under an executive order from Gov. Rod Blagojevich, surplus equipment either must be properly recycled or refurbished in hopes of deterring
exports of junk.
Brian Dickerson, who operates BLH Computers in Springfield, Ill., said he gets several e-mails every day from people trying to buy old equipment. He is among
those who refuses to do business with exporters.
"They shove everything that nobody wants — old monitors, printers, keyboards — into containers and put it on ships. But moving our problems to Nigeria or
China doesn't help anybody," he said.
Computer dealers described how the thinly veiled dumping works:
American brokers and scrap dealers are paid to haul away useless computers, which they then ship along with used laptops, working computers, old
televisions and other electronic equipment with some value to places like Lagos.
The Americans avoid U.S. dumping costs while the Nigerians find enough in the load to make a profit and then throw away or burn what's left.
Sometimes the e-waste schemes occur on a grand scale: Nigerians tell of receiving donated school buses packed with trashed computers destined for the
John Roberts, who operates Midwest Recycling in Rolla, Mo., says shipping to foreign markets sometimes is his only way to make a profit. Roberts, who was
sued by the state in July for an outdoor computer dump, says he occasionally ships to Africa but usually deals with Asian countries.
Interco Trading, of Fairmont City, Ill., has the reputation as one of the biggest electronics exporters in the region. Robert Feldman, a principal in the
company, said critics of exporting don't understand how global business works. His company operates in Europe and Asia, he said, but not in Africa.
"They don't know how the little piggy gets to market," said Feldman, explaining that electronic waste reclaimed in foreign lands often provides raw materials
for products reimported by the United States.
"If countries have a problem with it, they should restrict it," he said.
Crackdown — minus U.S.
In the late 1980s, shipments of toxic waste from Europe to Nigeria and from New Jersey to South Africa triggered a global effort to curb exploitative dumping.
Under the banner of the United Nations, countries aimed to end exploitative dumping in developing nations by adopting the Basel Convention, a treaty-like
agreement named for the Swiss city in which it was reached.
So far, 169 countries have ratified the agreement. The United States, where officials have worried about potential restraints on trade, is not among them.
Toxic-dumping tragedies still occur. In the Ivory Coast, at least 10 people died and thousands were sickened when black sludge that originated in Europe
was dumped at 17 sites in Abidjan, the capital city, last summer.
Electronic waste may be less hazardous. Still, many Africans and the United Nations are worried.
No studies have been conducted in Africa on the health effects of continued e-waste dumping and burning, but electronic garbage contains lead and other
material known to be unhealthful.
Besides leaching into soil and groundwater, burned e-waste can create dioxins, a class of chemicals linked to cancer and interference with the immune system.
At a conference of members of the Basel Convention that concluded this month, representatives of some 120 countries agreed to accelerate efforts to reduce
health risks from e-waste in developing countries by fighting illegal waste traffickers and strengthening global collaboration.
Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nations Environmental Program, referred to e-waste dumping as one of the planet's most significant new
"We have reached a point where both the experts and the people in the affected communities see this as a problem of unexpected proportions," he said in a
'Not a commodity'
Olakitan Ogunbuyi, of the Nigerian Federal Ministry of the Environment, was assigned by her government to tackle e-waste and other dumping issues.
Interviewed in Nigeria, she said officials have searched more than two dozen ships and appointed a commission to find solutions. But she said Nigeria's
young democracy — the nation is just seven years removed from military rule — desperately needs U.S. cooperation.
"The United States must help us on these Basel issues," she said.
Back in the United States, Matt Hale, director of the EPA's Office of Solid Waste, said his agency's new rules requiring notification when computer
monitors are shipped for recycling are "a significant new requirement that will give better international controls."
"We certainly see deplorable conditions that need to be addressed. Our view is that there are elements of commerce here that are legitimate, but we need to
make sure that it operates in a safe manner," he said.
A year ago, Jim Puckett, coordinator of the Basel Action Network, filmed the Nigerian dumps and markets and has used the evidence to press for restrictions
on e-waste dumping.
When he returned last week from the global gathering in Nairobi, Puckett said he was heartened that many countries are taking e-waste threats seriously but
troubled by the U.S. refusal to ratify the Basel Convention.
He noted that just three countries signed the dumping treaty years ago but have since refused to ratify it: Afghanistan, Haiti and the United States.
"They (U.S. officials) just sat on the sidelines in Nairobi. The only serious fly in the ointment is the irresponsibility of the United States," he asserted.
Adam Sichko of the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau contributed to this report.
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