'Digital Dumps' Heap Hazards at Foreign Sites

By Elizabeth Grossman

Each month, hundreds of thousands of used
computers, televisions and other electronic
components -- about 500 container loads -- arrive
in Nigeria.

Some of them were donated by people who thought
they were helping satisfy the rapidly growing
appetite for modern technology in a developing
country where few can afford it. And some of them
came from individuals or organizations that
simply wanted to get rid of their obsolete
equipment at the lowest cost.

Either way, at least half of the used equipment
that arrives in Lagos by the ton is unusable and
ends up in landfills, a Seattle-based nonprofit
discovered recently after sending a team to
survey the situation. The Basel Action Network
(BAN) found that much of the junked equipment is
adding to the considerable hazardous waste
problems of a country that lacks facilities to
properly handle it.

"There's an amazing expertise in repair, but so
much of what's coming in is worthless that it is
just dumped," said BAN's executive director, Jim
Puckett. Photos taken by the group show enormous
piles of junked electronics in wetlands, along
roadsides, and burning in uncontained landfills
that are routinely set ablaze to reduce bulk.
These open dumps are often in cities and in
residential neighborhoods. The pictures show
children wandering near smoldering piles of
computer and television parts.

The United Nations Environment Program estimates
that 20 million to 50 million tons of electronics
are discarded each year. Less than 10 percent of
the discards get recycled, and half or more end
up overseas, much exported for inexpensive, often
unsafe and environmentally unsound recycling,
primarily in China and India.

What is different about the exports to Africa,
said Puckett, is that unusable equipment sent
under the guise of recycling is also being

"We saw some kids taking copper off equipment in
the dumps, and we were told some people were
collecting circuit boards, but we saw no
organized materials recovery at all," he said.
Most major electronics manufacturers have
take-back and recycling programs, but those
efforts have yet to extend in a meaningful way to
developing markets such as Nigeria, which has no
electronics-recycling facilities.

Intact computer equipment is not hazardous, but
when computer and television screens, circuit
boards, batteries, and other high-tech
electronics are broken up or burned or degrade,
they release toxic materials that include lead,
cadmium, barium, mercury and chromium. Plastic
components contain brominated flame retardants
that accumulate in human blood and fat tissue and
can disrupt the body's hormonal balance. When
burned, some of these plastics release dioxins
and furans, persistent pollutants linked to a
host of health problems, including cancer.

Reuse advocates such as Jim Lynch of San
Francisco-based CompuMentor, which provides
technology assistance to nonprofits, believe that
extending the life of a computer by putting it
into the reuse market is an environmentally sound
solution. But many of the electronics that BAN
members saw in and around the Ikeja "Computer
Village" in Lagos were shipped by what Puckett
called "waste cowboys acting as e-scrap brokers."
Both said there are legitimate nonprofits that
arrange donations of tested, working equipment to
qualifying recipients, but much of the unusable
equipment dumped in Lagos comes in with the large
lots of used electronics imported as commercial

"I call it environmental doom for the developing
country and economic boom for the unscrupulous
traders," said Oladele Osibanjo of the University
of Ibadan, who was interviewed for BAN's recently
released report, "The Digital Dump."

Most of the equipment sold for reuse by the
thousands of electronics dealers in the Ikeja
Computer Village, which has been dubbed the
Silicon Valley of Lagos, comes from abroad, from
the United States, Europe, Asia and the Middle

Among the computers BAN saw for sale and
stockpiled were many that originally belonged to
government agencies, businesses, schools and
hospitals in the United States, Europe, Japan and
Israel, all bearing original identification tags.

The United States, unlike the European Union and
Japan, has no government-mandated system for
recycling used electronics -- and no regulations
to prevent the export of high-tech equipment for
environmentally unsound recycling.

The United States also remains the only
developed country that has not ratified the Basel
Convention, a treaty designed to control
international trade in hazardous waste. "This
makes the U.S. a haven for a renegade scrap
trade," Lynch said.

"It's a shadowy industry, and there's a lot more
scrap than working computers," said Robert
Houghton, president of Redemtech Inc. in
Columbus, Ohio, which handles electronics
recycling for Fortune 500 companies.

U.S. regulations allow export of used
electronics and parts destined for reuse or
recycling, but "unfortunately our government does
nothing to distinguish between true reuse and the
abuse of dumping on our global neighbors,"
Puckett said.

"It's extremely difficult to peel back the onion
far enough to find out where the equipment goes.
It may change hands two, three or four times
before it leaves the country," Houghton said.

The lack of tracking of disposed material also
raises data security issues. The Basel group
purchased disk drives in Ikeja's Computer Village
and had them analyzed by the Swiss firm NetMon.
Among those that were readable were hard drives
that belonged to the Wisconsin Department of
Health and Family Services and the World Bank.

Typically, U.S. government agencies dispose of
used electronics through surplus property
offices. Equipment that cannot be used by other
agencies and is not part of a donation program is
sold at public auctions, most now conducted

Some buyers want the equipment for personal or
small-business use, but much is bought by brokers
or auctioneers who resell for reuse, parts or
scrap value.

The General Services Administration, which
handles these sales for the federal government,
has a record of its buyers but does not follow up.

Many local governments and private businesses
use private electronics recyclers, numbering in
the hundreds. Numerous surplus property managers
interviewed said they did not know what the
recyclers did with the equipment; a number of
recyclers declined to say or were vague about
where they send the electronics they collect for
processing or resale.

"Africa needs its own local industry, to be able
to evolve its own local computers, to meet its
own local need," Shina Badaru, editor of
Nigeria's Technology Times, told BAN. "Africa
does not need the used equipment coming in from
the north to pose long-term threats to our

But until substantial changes are made in
materials used in electronics and how used
equipment is handled, the bridge across the
digital divide will ultimately lead, Puckett
said, "to a digital dump."


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