West Africa: Electronic Wastes pose danger to the region

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UNEP and Water Journalists Africa
12 February 2012

West Africa faces a rising tide of e-waste generated by domestic consumption of new and used electrical and electronic equipment, according to a new United Nations report.

Domestic consumption makes up the majority (up to 85 percent) of waste electronic and electrical equipment (WEEE) produced in the region, according to the study, Where are WEEE in Africa?

The e-waste problem in West Africa is further exacerbated by an ongoing stream of used equipment from industrialised countries, significant volumes of which prove unsuitable for re-use and contribute further to the amount of e-waste generated locally.

Not so many people know that their old electronic devices could make them sick

In the five countries studied in the UN report (Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Liberia, and Nigeria), between 650,000 and 1,000,000 tonnes of domestic e-waste are generated each year, which need to be managed to protect human health and the environment in the region.

Where are WEEE in Africa? sheds light on current recycling practices and on socio-economic characteristics of the e-waste sector in West Africa. It also provides the quantitative data on the use, import and disposal of electronic and electrical equipment in the region.

The report draws on the findings of national e-waste assessments carried out in the five countries from 2009 to 2011.

“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”, said United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Executive Director and UN Under-Secretary General Achim Steiner.

“We can grow Africa’s economies, generate decent employment and safeguard the environment by supporting sustainable e-waste management and recovering the valuable metals and other resources locked inside products that end up as e-waste. In the run-up to Rio+20 in June, this report shows how measures such as improved collection strategies and establishing more formal recycling structures, can limit environmental damage and provide economic opportunities,” added Mr. Steiner.

Risks and Opportunities of 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.

The report, which was prepared by the Secretariat of the Basel Convention and partners, also documents the economic and environmental potential of building a sound resource recovery and waste management system for e-waste, along with the risks of continuing on the present course.

“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.

Dangers of electronic waste cannot be ignored any longer

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 tonnes 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.

Child Labour Concerns

The exposure to hazardous substances in and around dismantling sites causes manifold health and safety risks for collectors, recyclers and neighbouring communities. Children’s health in particular may be at risk. Child labour 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 labourers 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 labour 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.

The report was prepared by the Secretariat of the Basel Convention in cooperation with the Basel Convention Regional Coordinating Centre for the African Region (BCCC-Nigeria) based in Nigeria and the Basel Convention Regional Centre for French-speaking countries in Africa (BCRC-Senegal) based in Senegal, the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology (EMPA), the Institute for Applied Ecology (the Öko-Institut), the European Union Network for the Implementation and Enforcement of Environmental Law (IMPEL) and the governments of Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Egypt, Ghana, Liberia, Nigeria, and Tunisia.

Copies of the report, Where are WEEE in Africa? Findings from the Basel Convention E-waste Africa Programme, can be downloaded from www.basel.int

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