Toxic "E-Waste" Gets Cached in Poor Nations, Report Says

November 8, 2005

Reduce, reuse, recycle. This familiar environmentalist slogan outlines an approach to minimizing how much trash ends up in landfills, incinerators, and waterways.

The concept is being employed to cope with one potentially hazardous form of waste—electronic junk such as old computers, cell phones, and televisions.

But the process for managing this so-called e-waste may get coopted for unscrupulous purposes more often than it's legitimately used, a recent report suggests.

"A lot of these materials are being sent [to developing nations] under the guise of reuse—to bridge the digital divide," said Richard Gutierrez, a toxics policy analyst for the Seattle, Washington-based Basel Action Network.

Last month the activist organization issued a report titled "The Digital Dump." The paper concludes that three-quarters of the supposedly reusable electronics shipped to Africa's largest port are broken.

One of the problems is that no one certifies whether donated machines work before they hit the seaways. Because of this, the report says, e-waste is a growing problem in Lagos, Nigeria, and elsewhere in the developing world.

Much of the waste ends up being discarded along rivers and roads. Often it's picked apart by destitute scavengers, who may face dangerous exposure to toxic chemicals in the broken equipment.

Traders in places like Lagos are willing to receive this cast-off junk, though many of their governments officially forbid it, Gutierrez said.

The importers sell the working machines. Then they pay workers a pittance to burn the plastic casings and wire insulation in broken machines and strip out sought-after materials such as gold and copper.

The low-tech recovery process could expose workers and the local environment to lead, cadmium, mercury, and other hazardous materials used to build electronics. Workers can also be exposed to carcinogenic compounds called dioxins that are byproducts of incinerated plastics.

"Green Passport"

According to Gutierrez, this shadow economy exists because the guise of recycling and reusing electronics gives dealers "a green passport" to ship waste around the globe. Most of the waste comes from developed nations that should know better, he said.

Continued on Next Page >>


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