E-waste: A Growing Environmental Problem for Africa

e-waste ict diseases
Wednesday, 7 September, 2011 - 09:14

African countries should find better ways of handling e-waste. The latter involves, among others, the dumping of old and non-functioning information and communication technology products which contain hazardous substances that pollute the environment and also expose people to diseases

Electronic waste, or e-waste, consists of obsolete electrical and electronic equipment (EEE). Obsolete EEE includes computers, televisions, mobile phones, printers and white electronic goods, such as refrigerators. Although China and India were the traditional ‘dumping grounds’ for such discarded global e-waste, since 2005 several studies have exposed illegal exporting of e-waste from developed countries to African countries, and predominantly, Nigeria and Ghana.  Additional levels of domestically produced e-waste are rising across Africa as well, a result of increased electronic goods consumption stemming from, among other factors, growing rates of disposable incomes.

E-waste presents serious environmental and health challenges for the countries left dealing with it, due to both its volume and toxicity.2 To date, global regional and national policy and regulatory responses have predominantly focused on banning trans-boundary shipments of e-waste. These responses have been weakly enforced, and have been largely ineffective in both the sending and receiving countries. Alternative solutions include recycling technology transfer and increased manufacturer responsibility, although neither has been significantly effective to date. The current potential for environmental and health risks associated with e-waste to rise across Africa is high, and thus presents a serious challenge.

A rising global problem

While the ‘digital age’ has brought about many advantages, rising consumption of EEE coupled with increasingly rapid obsolescence (due to sustained technological advances), and decreasing product lifetimes3 has led to significant increases in global e-waste levels. The latest available United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) estimate on the level of e-waste produced globally is forty million tons per year.4 This growing problem is compounded by low recycling rates, and illegal trans-boundary movement from developed to developing countries.5 Simultaneously, there is a significant increase in demand for EEE from within developing countries, thus further contributing to future potential increases in e-waste levels.

Growth of EEE in Africa

Individual demand for EEE is rising at significant rates across Africa, driven primarily by growing disposable incomes.  Looking at Tanzania for instance, World Bank data shows that over the last decade personal computer penetration rates has risen ten-fold, while the number of people who own a mobile phone has increased by a factor of 100. Furthermore, baseline reports commissioned by the Sustainable E-waste Project (StEP), a UN initiative that facilitates approaches to the e-waste problem, show that EEE markets remain unsaturated (especially for information and communication technology (ICT) products) across the majority of the countries surveyed,6 indicating further future rises in EEE penetration across the continent.

From EEE to e-waste

Despite this increasing demand for, and penetration rates of, EEE across the continent, many people are unable to afford new devices. Resulting demand for cheaper second-hand EEE, coupled with low labour costs for reparation and refurbishment, has led to a strong electronic re-use market in developing countries, and is clearly strong across Africa7. This in turn leads to a higher domestic e-waste generation per year, due to the reduced lifespan of second-hand EEE.8
Part of the demand for second-hand EEE is met by discarded equipment from government agencies and companies. In Senegal, for example, this source stream of EEE was found to contribute to 10 percent of the stock of second-hand ICT equipment in the country in 2008.9 Much of the remaining demand for second-hand EEE in Africa is met by imports from developed countries. However, estimates from Greenpeace in 2008 indicated that between 25 and 75 percent of second-hand EEE imported into Africa arrived in an unusable condition, beyond repair.10

Illegal transboundary shipments of e-waste

While there is demand for used EEE within African countries, there is no demand for non-functional or near end-of-life products.11 Furthermore, although re-usable second-hand EEE exports are legal, exports of e-waste are not, under international legislation12 and regional legislation.13 However, transboundary shipments of e-waste occur due to costly environmental and social standards for e-waste recycling in, for example, Europe, the United States and Japan.14 These illegal shipments are effectively liberating developed countries of the e-waste problem,15 at the expense of the receivers – the developing world.

When the problem of this so called e-waste ‘dumping’ began to gain attention, it was China and India who were the main receivers.16 From 2005, studies started to find that such shipments were being exported beyond Asia to some African countries,17 with high volumes received by Ghana and Nigeria in particular.18 The scale of these illegal transboundary shipments of e-waste is growing; estimates from 2010 indicate that 40 percent of e-waste from Europe alone is being exported to Asia and Africa.19 In Nigeria, for example, estimates of the number of computer imports found to be non-functioning range from 75 to 95 percent of each shipment.20

Informal e-waste recycling

The non-functioning computers that arrive into Nigeria are sold as scrap, smashed up and burned,21 common practice within e-waste receiving countries, which often lack capacity in handling and recycling of the hazardous materials within the e-waste.22 Instead, manual dismantling, open burning to recover materials, and open dumping of residual fractions occurs.23 In China and India this is predominantly carried out by a large organised informal e-waste recycling sector, whereas in African countries (with the exception of South Africa where a formal e-waste recycling industry has evolved)24 these actions are carried out by individuals.25 In China, plastics, cathode ray tubes (CRTs), and precious metals contained within the e-waste are recovered and re-sold or re-exported. However, in Nigeria and Ghana, it was found that only copper, aluminium and steel were recovered from e-waste.26 Resultantly, relatively more hazardous material is introduced into informal e-waste burning and dumping grounds across Africa, with higher implications for the environment and human health concerns.

Environmental Dangers and Health Concerns

E-waste can contain more than one thousand different substances, many of which are toxic.27 These can comprise heavy metals, for example mercury, lead, cadmium, and chromium, and flame retardants, including polybrominated biphenyls (PBBs), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs).28 The most hazardous components of e-waste are the mercury-containing components, batteries, printed circuit boards, CRTs, and the plastics which contain the brominated flame retardants.29 Leaching and evaporation of these substances occurs at the e-waste sites,30  and results in the contamination of surrounding natural resources including, soils, crops, drinking water, livestock and fish.31 Research at Agbogbloshie metal scrap yard in Accra, Ghana revealed lead, copper, zinc and tin in soil samples at rates 100 times greater than normal.32 When the e-waste is burnt, further toxic substances can be inadvertently generated.33

In addition to the environmental concerns, the hazardous materials found in e-waste pose a significant risk to human health. Mike Anana, from the League of Environmental Journalist in Ghana, explains, “…the people that break open these monitors tell me that they suffer from nausea, headaches and respiratory problems…”.34 However, it is not only the people working directly with e-waste who are being affected, but also the people living in the environs of the dumps, and those indirectly affected through resulting contamination of the food chain, soils and rivers. These people become exposed to the hazardous substances through dermal exposure, dietary intake, inhalation and dust ingestion, with the latter two sources found to be particularly significant.35 Chemicals found in the 2008 Greenpeace study in Ghana are known to interfere with sexual reproduction and promote cancer.36 A 2010 study in Ghana37 has attributed unexpectedly high levels of PCBs and PBDEs in human breast milk to obsolete electronic equipment and e-waste recycling, and elevated blood levels of lead and Cadium have been found in children living around the e-waste sites.

African Responses

While African governments are increasingly aware of the problem of e-waste, many have not domesticated the Basel and Bamako conventions into national law.38 However, the 2006 Nairobi Declaration on e-waste, marked an important milestone, and was followed by the 2008 Durban Declaration on e-waste Management in Africa, which stated that every country requires its own process to define their responses and formulate actions in relation to the growing e-waste problem.39

Several African countries are in the process of drawing up policies regarding EEE; some are focusing on the age of imported EEE, for example Ghana is considering a ban on EEE that is older than five years, while Uganda has banned second-hand EEE from entering the country.40  Nevertheless, global, regional and national policies centring on banning or regulating imports, or practices such as open burning have so far been weakly enforced, and have not enabled effective and significant management of e-waste treatment.41 In addition, custom tariffs do not differentiate between used or non-functional EEE, from new EEE, which complicates the process of blocking or controlling the illegal import of e-waste.42

Alternative Solutions

Instead of bans on imports and on informal e-waste recycling practices, it has been suggested that both should be more efficiently controlled, and that it is especially paramount to include the informal sector within decisions and resulting actions.43 This sentiment was strongly echoed in February 2011, during the Lagos State Environmental Protection Agency (LASEPA) E-waste Summit.  One of the recommendations from the summit concluded that e-waste imports should not be banned but controlled, as they provide opportunities for employment, poverty alleviation, business with recycling, and the bridge of the digital divide.44

The environmental and health risks associated with informal e-waste practices within Africa and other developing countries could potentially be reduced significantly through the use of improved treatment methods.45 For example, in specific relation to computer e-waste, modern recycling plants can recover or re-use 95% of the material, leaving only 5% as waste.46 As some of these recovered materials from computers and other EEE are scarce precious metals (such as gold), with increasingly high demand, this could also provide revenue generation. Conversely, such measures to increase the revenues from the recycling of e-waste and recovery of materials may inadvertently stimulate e-waste imports.47

Installing modern technology in African countries with high e-waste volumes could be one solution to the problem. This initiative is also one of increasing importance, considering that domestically generated e-waste in developing regions, including Africa, is expected to exceed that of developed regions within five to eight years.48 On the other hand, the process of (recycling) technology transfer to solve the e-waste problem in China was a failure, suggesting that a more holistic approach is needed.49 The question of who should bear the responsibility and the cost of installation of effective recycling technology would also have to be raised, if this solution was adopted within African countries.

Another potential solution involves EEE manufacturers taking more responsibility. Firstly to reduce the levels of hazardous and toxic substances used to make EEE, and secondly for the entire life-cycle of their products, including when they become obsolete.50 While some ‘producer take-back schemes’ are in existence in developed countries, they are not yet of significant scale, and there is no evidence of such schemes within African countries. While manufacturers decide if, and how, they will bear more responsibility and respond to this challenge, the problem of EEE currently in production and circulation remains. For their own part, consumers of EEE must begin to bear some responsibility as well.

Conclusion

At the root of the global e-waste problem is the fact that EEE manufacturers are producing increasing volumes of products with high levels of hazardous and toxic substances, with increasingly short life spans. This is compounded by resource-intense production methods, and complicated, costly and hazardous disassembly. Both illegal transboundary shipments of e-waste to Africa and domestically produced e-waste across the continent are predicted to rise in the near future. In the absence of more effective multi-faceted e-waste policies to respond to this growing problem, it is likely that informal e-waste recycling practices will become more prolific,51 increasing the associated environmental and health risks. While progress is being made in terms of awareness, significant challenges lie ahead.

- Sarah Marriott, Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Enviro Africa Unit.

The August 2011 edition of the CAI Enviro Africa Issues Newsletter is republished here with permission from Consultancy Africa Intelligence (CAI), a South African-based research and strategy firm with a focus on social, health, political and economic trends and developments in Africa. For more information, see http://www.consultancyafrica.com or http://www.ngopulse.org/press-release/consultancy-africa-intelligence. Alternatively, click here to take advantage of CAI’s free, no obligation, 1-month trial to the company’s Standard Report Series.

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NOTES:
(2) Sepúlveda, A., et.al, 2010. A review of the environmental fate and effects of hazardous substances released from electrical and electronic equipments during recycling: Examples from China and India. Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 30, p.29.
(3) Yu, J., Williams, E., Ju, M., Yang, Y., 2010. Forecasting Global Generation of Obsolete Personal Computers. Environmental Science& Technology, 44 (9), pp.3232-3237.
(4) StEP 2009. Recycling- from e-waste to resources. United Nations Environment Programme and United Nations University. p.65,  http://www.step-initiative.org.
(5) Sepúlveda, A., et. al, 2010. A review of the environmental fate and effects of hazardous substances released from electrical and electronic equipments during recycling: Examples from China and India. Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 30, p.29.
(6) Y. Amoyaw-Osei, et.al,  Ghana e-waste country assessment. SBC e-waste Africa Project, March 2011. p.xi, http://www.ewasteguide.info.
(7) Yu, J., Williams, E., Ju, M., Yang, Y., 2010. Forecasting Global Generation of Obsolete Personal Computers. Environmental Science& Technology, 44 (9),  p.3232
(8) Y. Amoyaw-Osei, Y., at. al, 2011. Ghana e-waste country assessment. SBC e-waste Africa Project, March 2011. p.x, http://www.ewasteguide.info.
(9) S.S., Wone et al., 2008. Senegal: E-waste country assessment, Proceedings of the 19th Waste management Conference of the IWMSA (Wastecon 2008). Durban, South Africa 6-10 October 2008. p.518,  http://www.ewasteguide.info.
(10) J. Keper, J., Højsk, N., 2008. Poisoning the poor: Electronic Waste in Ghana. University of Exeter, UK: Ghana Greenpeace Research Laboratories. p.4, http://www.greenpeace.org.
(11) European Union Network for the Implementation and Enforcement of Environment Law (IMPEL)., 2010. Report on the IMPEL TFS Workshop “Clamping down on illegal waste shipments to Africa”. Accra, Ghana 24-26 November 2009. p.12, http://www.wscep.org.
(12) The United Nations Basel Convention of 1992 and the 2006 Nairobi Declaration on E-waste both prohibit the export of electronic waste
(13) These include the Bamako Convention of 1992, and EU waste shipment legislation.
(14) Sepúlveda, A., et. al, 2010. A review of the environmental fate and effects of hazardous substances released from electrical and electronic equipments during recycling: Examples from China and India. Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 30, pp.28-41. p.37.
(15) UNEP, 2005, ‘E-waste, the hidden side of IT equipment’s manufacturing and use’, UNEP Environmental Alert Bulletin, January 2011 p.6, http://www.unep.org.
(16) Basel Action Network, 2002. Exporting harm: the high tech trashing of Asia. 25 February 2002, http://www.ban.org.
(17) Basel Action Network., 2005. The digital dump. Exporting, re-use and abuse to Africa. 24 October 2005,
http://www.ban.org.
(18) K. Bridgen,  I. Labunska, D. Santillo, P. Johnston,2008. Chemical contamination at e-waste recycling and disposal sites in Accra and Korforidum. University of Exeter, UK; Ghana Greenpeace Research Laboratories. p.4.,http://www.greenpeace.org.
(19)  Yu, J., Williams, E., Ju, M., Yang, Y., 2010. Forecasting Global Generation of Obsolete Personal Computers. Environmental Science& Technology, 44 (9), pp.3232-3237. p.3233
(20) European Union Network for the Implementation and Enforcement of Environment Law (IMPEL) ., 2010. Report on the IMPEL TFS Workshop “Clamping down on illegal waste shipments to Africa”. Accra, Ghana 24-26 November 2009. pp.19-20,http://www.wscep.org.
(21) R. Wray., 2008. Breeding toxins from dead PCs. Guardian London, 6 May, http://www.guardian.co.uk.
(22) CPCT/ Empa, 2011. E-waste assessment Tanzania. UNIDO e-waste initiative for Tanzania, 20 January 2011, p.7,http://www.unido.org
(23) K. Bridgen,  I. Labunska, D. Santillo, P. Johnston, 2008. Chemical contamination at e-waste recycling and disposal sites in Accra and Korforidum. University of Exeter, UK; Ghana Greenpeace Research Laboratories. p.4.,http://www.greenpeace.org.
(24) M. Shluep, 2009. E-waste management in Africa- Rising up the Political Agenda. Recycling International, April 2011. p.2, http://www.ewasteguide.info.
(25) Ibid. p.54.
(26) European Union Network for the Implementation and Enforcement of Environment Law (IMPEL)., 2010. Report on the IMPEL TFS Workshop “Clamping down on illegal waste shipments to Africa”. Accra, Ghana 24-26 November 2009. p.13., http://www.wscep.org.
(27) Sepúlveda, A.,  et. al , 2010. A review of the environmental fate and effects of hazardous substances released from electrical and electronic equipments during recycling: Examples from China and India. Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 30, p.29
(28) UNEP, 2005, ‘E-waste, the hidden side of IT equipment’s manufacturing and use’, UNEP Environmental Alert Bulletin,  January 2011 p.5., http://www.unep.org.
(29) Oyuna, Tysdenova., Magnus, Bengtsson., 2011. Chemical hazards associated with treatment of waste electrical and electronic equipment. Waste Management, 31, p.46.
(30) Ibid. p.56.
(31) Sepúlveda, A.  et. al, 2010. A review of the environmental fate and effects of hazardous substances released from electrical and electronic equipments during recycling: Examples from China and India. Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 30, p.26.
(32) Öko-Institut, 2010. Socio-economic assessment and feasibility study on sustainable e-waste management in Ghana. August 2010, Öko-Institut, Denmark. p.4, http://www.oeko.de.
(33) StEP 2009. Recycling- from e-waste to resources. United Nations Environment Programme and United Nations University. p.3, http://www.step-initiative.org.
(34) R. Wray., 2008. Breeding toxins from dead PCs. Guardian London, 6 May, http://www.guardian.co.uk.
(35) Tysdenova,O.,Bengtsson, M., 2011. Chemical hazards associated with treatment of waste electrical and electronic equipment. Waste Management, 31, p.54.
(36) Keper, J., Højsk, N., 2008. Poising the poor: Electronic Waste in Ghana. University of Exeter, UK: Ghana Greenpeace Research Laboratories. p.4, http://www.greenpeace.org.
(37) Asante, A.K., et.al, 2011. Human exposure to PCBs, PBDEs and HBCDs in Ghana: Temporal variation sources of exposure and estimation of daily intakes by infants. Environment International, 37 (5), pp.21-8.
(38) European Union Network for the Implementation and Enforcement of Environment Law (IMPEL)., 2010. Report on the IMPEL TFS Workshop “Clamping down on illegal waste shipments to Africa”. Accra, Ghana 24-26 November 2009. p.27, http://www.wscep.org.
(39) M. Shluep, 2009. E-waste management in Africa- Rising up the Political Agenda. Recycling International, April 2011. p.5. http://www.ewasteguide.info.
(40) European Union Network for the Implementation and Enforcement of Environment Law (IMPEL)., 2010. Report on the IMPEL TFS Workshop “Clamping down on illegal waste shipments to Africa”. Accra, Ghana 24-26 November 2009, p.12,  http://www.wscep.org.
(41) Tysdenova,O.,Bengtsson, M., 2011. Chemical hazards associated with treatment of waste electrical and electronic equipment. Waste Management, 31,p. 56
(42) European Union Network for the Implementation and Enforcement of Environment Law (IMPEL)., 2010. Report on the IMPEL TFS Workshop “Clamping down on illegal waste shipments to Africa”. Accra, Ghana 24-26 November 2009. p.27, http://www.wscep.org
(43) Sepúlveda, A., et.al, 2010. A review of the environmental fate and effects of hazardous substances released from electrical and electronic equipments during recycling: Examples from China and India. Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 30, p.39.
(44) Lagos State Environmental Protection Agency, 2011. EKO declaration on e-waste 2011, communiqué. The 1st Eko e-waste summit 2011. Lagos, Nigeria, 24-25 February 2011. p.9., http://www.lasepa.org.
(45) Tysdenova,O.,Bengtsson, M., 2011. Chemical hazards associated with treatment of waste electrical and electronic equipment. Waste Management, 31,p.57.
(46) UNEP, 2005, ‘E-waste, the hidden side of IT equipment’s manufacturing and use’, UNEP Environmental Alert Bulletin, January 2011. p.7., http://www.unep.org.
(47) Öko-Institut, 2010. Socio-economic assessment and feasibility study on sustainable e-waste management in Ghana. August 2010, Öko-Institut, Denmark. p.9., http://www.oeko.de.
(48) Yu, J., Williams, E., Ju, M., Yang, Y., 2010. Forecasting Global Generation of Obsolete Personal Computers. Environmental Science& Technology, 44 (9), p.3232.
(49) StEP 2009. Recycling- from e-waste to resources. United Nations Environment Programme and United Nations University. p.50., http://www.unep.org.
(50) UNEP, 2005, ‘E-waste, the hidden side of IT equipment’s manufacturing and use’, UNEP Environmental Alert Bulletin, January 2011. p.8., http://www.unep.org.
(51) Schluep, M., 2010. E-waste management in developing countries- with a focus on Africa. ITU Symposium on ICTs and the Environment and Climate Change. Cairo, Egypt 2-3 November 2010. p.14.,http://www.itu.int.

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