UN: e-Waste Imports Add to Growing Problem in West Africa

Ghana-Nov.-2009-276West Africa faces a rising tide of e-waste, according to a newly published United Nations report, Where are WEEE in Africa.

While domestic consumption makes up the majority (up to 85 percent) of waste electronic and electrical equipment (WEEE) produced in the region, the report finds that the e-waste crisis is deepened by an ongoing stream of imported e-waste from industrialized countries.

The report draws on the findings of national e-waste assessments carried out in the countries of Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Liberia, and Nigeria from 2009 to 2011.

e-Waste Imports to West Africa

The report examined the flows of EEE and e-waste between Europe and West Africa. Among the major findings:

  • In Ghana in 2009, investigators found that around 70% of all EEE imports were used EEE; 30% of second-hand imports were estimated to be non-functioning (therefore e-waste), producing about 40,000 tons of e-waste in 2010.
  • Field investigations in Benin and Côte d’Ivoire have shown that about half of the imported used EEE is actually non-functional and non-repairable, thus defined as import of e-waste.
  • An analysis of 176 containers of two categories of used electrical and electronic equipment imported into Nigeria, conducted from March to July 2010, revealed that more than 75% of all containers came from Europe, approximately 15% from Asia, 5% from African ports (mainly Morocco) and 5% from North America. A similar distribution could be observed in Ghana, where 85% of used EEE imports originated in Europe, 4% in Asia, 8% in North America, and 3% from other destinations.
  • The UK is the dominant exporting country to Africa for both new and used EEE, followed with large gaps by France and Germany. Nigeria is the most dominant African importing country for new and used EEE, followed by Ghana.
  • The amount of e-waste generated in Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Liberia, and Nigeria from the consumption of new or used EEE of good quality with a reasonable life-span is comparable to the total amount of e-waste generated in Belgium or the Netherlands, and equates to approximately 5% of all e-waste generated in the European Union.

“E-waste is the fastest growing waste stream world-wide and a key waste stream under the Basel Convention. Dealing with electronic and electrical equipment properly presents a serious environmental and health challenge for many countries, yet also offers a potentially significant opportunity to create green businesses and green jobs,” said Jim Willis, Executive Secretary of the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions.

More Computers = More e-Waste

The use of electrical and electronic equipment is still low in Africa compared to other regions of the world, but it is growing at a staggering pace. The penetration rate of personal computers in Africa, for example, has increased by a factor of 10 in the last decade, while the number of mobile phone subscribers has increased by a factor of 100

Electrical and electronic equipment can contain hazardous substances (e.g. heavy metals such as mercury and lead, and endocrine disrupting substances such as brominated flame retardants).

Hazardous substances are released during various dismantling and disposal operations and are particularly severe during the burning of cables to liberate copper and of plastics to reduce waste volumes. Open burning of cables is a major source of dioxin emissions, a persistent organic pollutant that travels over long-distances that bio-accumulates in organisms up through the global food chain.

Electrical and electronic equipment also contains materials of strategic value such as indium and palladium and precious metals such as gold, copper and silver. These can be recovered and recycled, thereby serving as a valuable source of secondary raw materials, reducing pressure on scarce natural resources, as well as minimizing the overall environmental footprint.

Child Labor Concerns

The exposure to hazardous substances in and around dismantling sites causes manifold health and safety risks for collectors, recyclers and neighboring communities. Children’s health in particular may be at risk.  Child labor is common in West Africa’s scrap metal business, the report’s investigators found. Collection and dismantling activities are carried out by children from the age of 12, however younger children from the age of five are sometimes engaged in light work, including dismantling of small parts and sorting of materials.

In contrast to the informal recycling sector, where collection and recycling of e-waste is almost exclusively carried out by individuals largely consisting of migrant laborers who are often stigmatized in African societies as ‘scavengers’, refurbishment is viewed as a  relatively attractive economic opportunity for an increasingly well-educated, semi-professional labor force. In Accra (Ghana) and Lagos (Nigeria), the refurbishing sector provides income to more than 30,000 people.

“Sustainable solutions for e-waste management in Africa require measures aimed at imports and exports control, collection and recycling, policy and legislation that incorporate extended producer responsibility, recognize the important role of the informal sector, promote awareness raising and education, as well as compliance monitoring and enforcement. Appropriate health and safety measures for those involved in recycling, as well as environmentally sound practices, should be ensured,”   said Prof. Oladele Osibanjo, Director of Basel Convention Regional Coordinating Center for Africa, a co-author of the report.