Efforts are underway to strengthen the EU’s rules – the Waste Electronic and Electrical Equipment Directive – on disposal of old appliances, televisions, mobile telephones and computers.
Barely one-third of such items are recycled at home, researchers say, while the bulk goes into landfills. But thousands of tonnes of electronic goods are exported where second-hand computer components and recycled metals are lucrative commodities for poorer countries.
“A lot of this export is illegal or in an illegal grey zone,” said Andreas Manhart of the Öko Institute for Applied Ecology in Germany, who collaborated a recent study - ‘Where are WEEE in Africa’ - produced by the UN Environment Programme.
Changes being considered to the WEEE directive seek to shift the burden of policing cargo from customs agents to exporters themselves. For now, West African countries – including Benin, Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, Liberia and Nigeria – absorb tens of thousands of tonnes of Europe’s electronic discards each year.
The UN study says some 220,000 tonnes of electrical and electronic goods were shipped from the EU to West Africa in 2009. A Pan-African Forum on E-Waste begins tomorrow (14 March) in the Kenyan capital Nairobi.
In Ghana alone, 30% of imports of allegedly second-hand products were useless, skirting EU efforts that call for electronic goods have some reusable value. Overall, the UN report shows that some 85% of containers arriving in Ghana with electrical and electronic goods came from Europe and 4% from Asia.
“In real life for customs it is very difficult to differentiate between what is functioning or what is not functioning,” Manhart, a scientific researcher at Öko, said in a telephone interview.
Authorities say illicit waste is typically hidden in containers carrying legitimate cargo to thwart customs inspections.
In August 2011, Europol warned that illegal waste dumping was on the rise within Europe – in abandoned mines and gravel pits - and in exports to Africa from ports in Italy and northern Europe.
“Criminals are exploiting the high costs associated with legal waste management and are making substantial profits from illegal trafficking and disposal activities, circumventing environmental legislation,” the European police agency said in a statement.
Reusing second-hand computer and other electronics or cycling components is becoming a major business in parts of Africa, where environmental standards are much lower than in Europe or poorly enforced. Imports from Europe had been rising in the past decade, but declined in 2009 - coinciding with the economic decline - UN statstics show.
But the business comes with a price.
Manhart cited serve human health risks and environmental impact from burning off electrical chord casings to get to copper that can then be sold for recycling.
The UNEP says discarded refrigerants and computer displays contain toxins or pollutants that can pose profound risks to people, as well as air and water quality. Some of the leading pollutants from e-waste are lead, mercury and endocrine disrupting substances such as brominated flame retardants
There is also concern that many of the workers engaged in scrap metal and e-waste yards are children - some as young as five, the UN says.
The UNEP has called for better controls in Africa, where the home-grown e-waste problem is growing.
"Effective management of the growing amount of e-waste generated in Africa and other parts of the world is an important part of the transition towards a low-carbon, resource-efficient Green Economy", Achim Steiner, UNEP’s executive director, said in a statement on the release of the WEEE report.