African nations have called for continent-wide action to staunch the import of electronic waste, including old computers and mobile telephones from Europe where stringent environmental laws make exporting used goods cheaper than disposing of them at home.
In a document released this week, African countries that adopted an international convention on hazardous waste called for uniform action to end the import of discarded electronic goods containing dangerous components. In some cases, the products are sent as donations for reuse even though they are no longer useful.
In response to the trade in so-called e-waste, the EU took steps in 2012 to strengthen its export laws to prevent the dumping of electronic goods in Africa.
The update to a decade-old Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive followed hard-fought bargaining over how to improve the recovery of computers and other electronic and electrical waste, much of which was either dumped in landfills or shipped abroad for disposal because of the high cost of recycling in Europe.
Nations that are parties to the Bamako Convention on the export of hazardous waste to Africa met in the Malian capital in June for the first time since the international agreement was agreed in 1991.
In its final declarations, released on Tuesday (6 August), the African representatives called for enforcement of the convention and for tougher national laws.
The Bamako meeting marked “the first time that African parties have by themselves called for rigorous action to prevent e-waste dumping,” said a statement from the Basel Action Network, an environmental group that campaigns against the trade in toxic waste.
EU’s revamped WEEE law
Under the new WEEE legislation, EU countries will have to recover 45 tonnes of e-waste for every 100 tonnes of electronic goods sold by 2016, rising to 65% of sales by 2019 – or 85% of all e-waste generated. Newer member countries get an extension until 2021.
In approving the new rules on 7 June 2012, the EU Council expanded the directive to include solar panels, fluorescent lighting containing mercury and equipment containing ozone-depleting substances. EU countries have until 14 February 2014 to adopt the directive into their national laws.
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 because second-hand computer components and recycled metals are lucrative commodities for poorer countries.
The new WEEE directive requires national governments to provide information on where goods can be recycled goods, including in-store facilities for smaller electronic goods like mobile telephones, and calls on national governments to more rigorously enforce exports of e-waste.
A 2012 report by the UN Environment Programme – ‘Where are WEEE in Africa’ – says some 220,000 tonnes of electrical and electronic goods were shipped from the EU to West Africa in 2009.
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.
Authorities say illicit waste is typically hidden in containers carrying legitimate cargo to thwart customs inspections.
The UNEP has called for better controls in Africa, where the home-grown e-waste problem is also growing.
In a related waste export matter, the EU is moving to end the practice of “beaching” old ships in foreign countries.