The findings of an investigation into dumping of used electronics equipment in Nigeria came as no surprise to African IT leaders, who say that if African governments fully realised the harm being done, they would take action. A report about the investigation, conducted by the BAN (Basel Action Network) calls on governments globally to pressure electronics manufacturers to remove toxic chemicals from their products "at the earliest possible date" and also urges consumers to take responsibility for their electronic waste.
"This is a contentious issue and if our governments understood it, they would do something about it," said Dorcus Muthoni of LinuxChix Africa, an organisation campaigning for the adoption of open-source software in Kenya.
As BAN notes in its latest report, however, "much of the growth in the IT sector in developing countries has been fueled by the importation of hand-me-down, used equipment from rich, developed countries, whose consumers are all too happy to find buyers for it. As a result, many brokers and businesses have sprung up to channel used equipment from north to south, rich to poor."
BAN is a non-profit group based in Seattle that involves a worldwide network of environmental activists focused on "confronting the excesses of unbridled free trade in the form of 'Toxic Trade'... and its devastating impact on global environmental justice." The group focuses on human rights and the environment and aims to heighten awareness of and prevent the dumping of toxic waste and pollution in poor and developing countries. An investigation into electronic-waste, or e-waste, dumping in Lagos, Nigeria, is the topic of BAN's latest report, released earlier this week.
Improperly discarded electronics can create hazardous waste from flame retardants used in plastics and circuit boards, solders containing lead and tin, barium and lead in cathode ray tubes, mercury and beryllium alloys in connectors, among other potential environmental hazards, the BAN report noted.
One of the people interviewed for the report told BAN that "This thing is happening because they are poor. Poor countries will accept anything," said Richard Gutierrez, BAN's toxics policy analyst.
While all of the major US PC vendors have recycling programs in place for used IT equipment, such products are often sold to brokers for disposal and wind up in countries such as Nigeria, but also elsewhere in Africa and in Asia. Some of the equipment is repaired or refurbished for use in those countries, becoming important components in bridging the "digital divide," but a lot of the gear - up to 75 percent, according to some estimates - is beyond repair and ends up in dumps or landfills.
"Seen at ground level, the massive importation of used equipment is a success story seriously clouded by the smoke of a growing environmental and health disaster," the BAN report said. "The reality is that this burgeoning trade is not driven by altruism, but rather by the immense profits that can be made through it and those involved are oblivious to, or unconcerned with, its adverse consequences. Too often, justifications of 'building bridges over the digital divide' are used as excuses to obscure and ignore the fact that these bridges double as toxic waste pipelines to some of the poorest communities and countries in the world. While supposedly closing the 'digital divide' we are opening a 'digital dump'."
Some countries do have safeguards in place. "Sending IT equipment in Africa that cannot be repaired should be discouraged. In Zambia we use the Technology and Service Neutral Approach system, which states that all ICTs and IT equipment being exported or imported must meet the international standard and health requirements of users," said Shuller Habeenzu, chief executive officer of the Communications Authority of Zambia.
And the Basel Convention also specifically addresses the issue of hazardous wastes being dumped in developing countries and in Eastern Europe. Stricter environmental regulations in developed nations that were imposed in the late 1980s led to the rise in "toxic traders", as the Basel Convention website calls them. Those traders set up business to profit from those who sought cheaper alternatives for getting rid of hazardous wastes after it became more difficult and costly to deal with such materials under stricter regulations.
The Basel Convention, which is part of the UN Environmental Program, is an international treaty that sets up controls, enforcement mechanisms and requirements that signatories agree to follow, including preventing and monitoring illegal traffic in hazardous waste, promoting cleaner technologies and production, and focusing specifically on helping developing nations.
The treaty has been ratified by 165 countries; the US is not one of them. The US signed the Convention in March of 1990, indicating agreement with the treaty and the intention of ratifying it, but thus far has not taken the final step in ratification. While other nations have not signed at all, along with the US, only Haiti and Afghanistan have taken that step and then failed to ratify the treaty. The BAN report on dumping in Lagos calls the US "the worst actor" among developed countries that perpetuate dumping of hazardous waste in developing nations.
"As the only developed country absent at the table of the world's only waste treaty, the US can be viewed as nothing short of a remarkable example of irresponsibility," the report said. "The US policy on electronic waste is shamelessly negligent... Canada, likewise, while nominally a Basel Party, seems intent on ignoring the Basel waste lists to avoid controlling e-waste exports."
Much of the trade in e-waste to Africa and elsewhere "is in fact illegal under the Basel Convention", the report said. "Yet it appears that far too many governments are looking the other way and are failing in dramatic fashion to properly enforce and implement the Convention for post-consumer electronic waste."
However, there are notable exceptions, including a European Union directive that calls for electronics manufacturers to stop using hazardous materials in products by the middle of next year, Guiterrez said. "They know, they are aware, they see the writing on the wall," he said of manufacturers, noting that "it's the same manufacturers" who produce goods sold in Europe that also are sold elsewhere.
Relative to the Waste from Electronic and Electrical Equipment directive, Europe must "heed the fact" that as tougher regulations take effect, "growing volumes of electronic waste will be collected, which, without proper enforcement of their Waste Shipment Regulation, could translate into a tsunami of electronic waste flowing from port to port."
In its list of recommendations to combat illegal dumping of e-waste, BAN urges governments to pressure manufacturers to remove toxic chemicals from products as soon as possible. That is a move that IT industry analysts and other environmental groups also say is the only truly effective measure to protect the environment.
BAN also calls on strict enforcement of the Basel Convention and lauds Australia for its efforts in that regard. Australia requires full testing of electronic waste to certify that it complies with the Basel Convention before it is exported.
At the same time, developing countries need help to create "environmentally sound waste-management systems," BAN said. Such efforts should not be part of continuing to export hazardous wastes to those countries, "but rather as a necessity for any country that must deal with all kinds of wastes. Adequate waste management is as vital to society as clean air, clean water and clean food, for today, without it, we will have none of these things we have taken for granted since the beginning of time."
The full text of the report based on BAN's investigation in Lagos can be found at www.ban.org.
(Michael Malakata in the News Service Lusaka, Zambia, bureau contributed to this report.)