Unfair trade e-waste in Africa.The bright and dark sides of Africa's information technology sector are both evident at the Ikeja Computer Village, near Lagos, Nigeria. Thousands of vendors pack this bustling market, one of three major hubs where imported used electronics are repaired and sold. Computers, fax machines, cell phones--if you want one, you can find it here, spruced up and ready to buy. But beyond the thriving storefronts and the piles of refurbished wares, a darker picture emerges. Up to 75% of the electronics shipped to the Computer Village are irreparable junk, according to according to
1. As stated or indicated by; on the authority of: according to historians.
2. In keeping with: according to instructions.
3. the Computer and Allied Product Dealers Association of Nigeria, a local industry group. Nigeria has a thriving repair market, but no capacity to safely deal with electronic waste, most of which winds up in landfills and informal dumps. That's a problem, because this "e-waste" can be toxic: much of it is loaded with potentially toxic metals including lead, cadmium, and mercury. What's more, electronic components are usually housed in plastic casings that spew carcinogenic carcinogenic
having a capacity for carcinogenesis. dioxins and polyaromatic hydrocarbons when burned.
Emerging Dumping Grounds
Hungry for information technology but with a limited capacity to manufacture it, Africa has become the world's latest destination for obsolete electronic equipment. Much of this material is more or less functional and provided in good faith by well-meaning donors. But the brokers who arrange these exports often pad shipping containers with useless junk, essentially saddling African importers with electronic garbage. In 2002, the Basel Action Network (BAN), a Seattle-based environmental group, made headlines with its investigation of e-waste exports to Asia [see "e-Junk Explosion," EHP EHP
1. effective horsepower
2. electric horsepower 110:A188-A194 (2002)]. More recently, BAN explored Africa's e-waste problem, and described its findings in an October 2005 report titled The Digital Dump: Exporting Re-use and Abuse to Africa.
BAN coordinator Jim Puckett, who visited Nigeria as part of that investigation, saw enormous piles of e-waste throughout the countryside, much of it routed through Lagos, Africa's largest port. "We saw people using e-waste to fill in swamps," Puckett recalls. "Whenever the piles got too high, they would torch them.... Residents complained about breathing the fumes fumes
odorous gases and other volatile materials; inhalation of irritating fumes causes coughing and, if sufficiently severe, irreversible pulmonary edema. , but the dumps were never cleaned up. We saw kids roaming barefoot over this material, not to mention chickens and goats [which wind up in the local diet]."
Puckett says the dumps near Lagos could be the tip of an iceberg. No one knows for sure because there are virtually no data concerning the global e-waste trade--harmonized tariff schedules that dictate fees for export commodities don't assign codes to waste electronics other than batteries. There are tariff classifications for scrap (e.g., plastic, metal) and for new electronics by type (e.g., computer monitors, TV sets). Because the importers don't want to pay tariffs on a five-year-old computer based on the price of a new one, they often use scrap classifications, measured in pounds, says Robin Ingenthron, acting president of the World Reuse, Repair and Recycling Association (WR3A), a nonprofit group trying to establish fair trade standards for the practice. Consequently, the volume, characteristics, and destinations of e-waste exports are shrouded in mystery.
BAN's investigation--among the first of its kind in Africa--was limited to areas near Lagos, followed by a week-long foray into Verb 1. foray into - enter someone else's territory and take spoils; "The pirates raided the coastal villages regularly"
encroach upon, intrude on, obtrude upon, invade - to intrude upon, infringe, encroach on, violate; "This new colleague invades my neighboring Niger, a landlocked country A landlocked country is commonly defined as one enclosed or nearly enclosed by land. As of 2007, there are 43 landlocked countries in the world. . Based on BAN's firsthand observations and other anecdotal reports, Puckett now believes e-wastes are passing through African port cities that, in addition to Lagos, include Mombasa, Dares Salaam sa·laam
1. A ceremonious act of deference or obeisance, especially a low bow performed while placing the right palm on the forehead.
2. A respectful ceremonial greeting performed especially in Islamic countries.
tr. , and Cairo. Puckett didn't encounter e-waste in Niger and speculates that this is at least in part because the inland country has no port.
An estimated 500 shipping containers loaded with secondhand electronic equipment pass through Lagos each month, BAN's investigation found. Each container can be packed, on average, with a load equal in volume to 800 computer monitors or central processing units See CPU.
(architecture, processor) central processing unit - (CPU, processor) The part of a computer which controls all the other parts. Designs vary widely but the CPU generally consists of the control unit, the arithmetic and logic unit (ALU), registers, temporary buffers (CPUs), or 350 large TV sets. Local experts cited by BAN estimate that anywhere from 25% to 75% of this material is useless. Assuming the low end of this range, one could hypothesize hy·poth·e·size
v. hy·poth·e·sized, hy·poth·e·siz·ing, hy·poth·e·siz·es
To assert as a hypothesis.
To form a hypothesis. that volumes of e-waste equal to 100,000 computers or CPUs, or 44,000 TV sets, enter Africa each month through Lagos alone.
The E-Waste Trade
Why do African importers pay for electronic junk they can't sell? If the contents of shipping containers are purchased by weight, not by the combined value of what's inside them, then waste can be transported by "averaging" the load. It costs an average of US$5,000 to ship a 40-foot container full of used electronics from the United States United States, officially United States of America, republic (2005 est. pop. 295,734,000), 3,539,227 sq mi (9,166,598 sq km), North America. The United States is the world's third largest country in population and the fourth largest country in area. to Africa, according to Jim According to Jim is an American situation comedy television series originally broadcast by ABC. The show premiered with little publicity in October 2001, following the surprise hit comedy My Wife and Kids. Lynch, senior program manager for computer recycling Most major Computer manufacturers offer some form of recycling, often as a free replacement service when purchasing a new PC. At the user's request they may mail in their old computer, or arrange for pickup from the manufacturer. and reuse at CompuMentor, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization Nonprofit Organization
An association that is given tax-free status. Donations to a non-profit organization are often tax deductible as well.
Examples of non-profit organizations are charities, hospitals and schools. . Once there, some of this equipment can fetch a high price: Olayemi Adesanya, BAN's logistical coordinator in Nigeria, says a functional Pentium III The successor to the Pentium II from Intel. Introduced in the spring of 1999 at 500 MHz, the Pentium III architecture was similar to the Pentium II with the addition of 70 new instructions optimized for multimedia (see SSE). computer sells for about US$130 on Nigerian markets, while a working 27-inch TV might sell for US$50. (Scrap components--especially working hard drives--can also be readily sold in Nigeria to supply an emerging reassembly reassembly - segmentation industry.) Therefore, it doesn't take many working units to cover shipping costs. Indeed only 40 good Pentium III computers pays for an entire container, leaving a comfortable margin for profit even if the container is loaded with mostly unusable waste.
The question of who's selling e-waste to Africa is harder to answer. Used electronics travel murky routes populated by numerous recyclers and brokers working in an unregulated market, devoid of government certification programs. Electronics recyclers are at the top of the supply chain. These companies incur tremendous overhead expenses--to recycle a single monitor in the United States, for instance, can cost up to $15.
Many recyclers run legitimate operations that absorb these costs and profit from refurbished equipment sales and fees charged for accepting old, unsalable Un`sal´a`ble
a. 1. Not salable; unmerchantable.
Adj. 1. unsalable - impossible to sell
salable, saleable - capable of being sold; fit for sale; "saleable at a low price" material. But others are not so scrupulous. According to one anonymous recycler, it's not uncommon for companies to coordinate with exporters to ship junk overseas. In some cases, exporters negotiate with buyers in developing countries, who dictate the amount of junk they will accept in exchange for a specified number of high-value items. "I could come up with half a load of good stuff and say, 'If you want it, you have to take the bad,' and sell it all by the pound," the recycler says. "Then the guy in Africa will crunch the numbers and say, 'OK, if you put a few more Pentium IIIs in there, you've got a deal.'"
In other cases, the recycler adds, the deals are less defined--exporters simply load containers with junk, and sell it by the pound to inexperienced buyers who don't know Don't know (DK, DKed)
"Don't know the trade." A Street expression used whenever one party lacks knowledge of a trade or receives conflicting instructions from the other party. to negotiate content from the outset. These cases are rare, however, and buyers stuck with containers full of worthless junk aren't likely to make the same mistake again, he says.
By the same token, says Ingenthron, some inexperienced exporters might unwittingly send a Cisco router worth $15,000 in a container load of "mixed electronics." The WR3A refers to loads like those as "lottery tickets."
Ingenthron stresses that not all waste exports are bad. Asian importers, for instance, can sell working cathode ray tubes See CRT.
(hardware) cathode ray tube - (CRT) An electrical device for displaying images by exciting phosphor dots with a scanned electron beam. CRTs are found in computer VDUs and monitors, televisions and oscilloscopes. (CRTs), which contain up to four pounds of lead each, to electronics manufacturers who use them to make new products. Other importers may purchase broken CRT (1) (C RunTime) See runtime library.
(2) (Cathode Ray Tube) A vacuum tube used as a display screen in a computer monitor or TV. The viewing end of the tube is coated with phosphors, which emit light when struck by electrons. glass to be manufactured into new CRTs. "If you have containers full of cleaned, processed broken CRT glass going to Asian CRT furnaces, that's good for the environment," he says. "Otherwise, you have to mine for the metals."
Asia does, in fact, have a thriving electronics recovery industry that supplies manufacturers with recycled raw materials. While the practice does have its benefits, as noted above, it also exploits women and child laborers who cook circuit boards, burn cables, and submerge sub·merge
v. sub·merged, sub·merg·ing, sub·merg·es
1. To place under water.
2. To cover with water; inundate.
3. To hide from view; obscure.
v.intr. equipment in toxic acids to extract precious metals Precious Metals
Valuable metals such as gold, iridium, palladium, platinum, and silver.
Investing in precious metals can be done either by purchasing the physical asset, or by purchasing futures contracts for the particular metal. such as copper. BAN documented these practices, which have dire health and ecological consequences, during its 2002 and 2004 visits to China. However, BAN investigators didn't witness this type of activity in Nigeria. Puckett speculates this might be because waste volumes there aren't yet high enough to realize profits from recovery. In that case, he suggests, it could be just a matter of time before the same hazardous e-waste extraction methods observed in China emerge in the Lagos street economy.
Stemming the Tide
Numerous efforts to limit the flow of e-waste to developing countries are under way even as export volumes continue to grow. For its part, BAN has pushed for U.S. ratification of the Basel Convention, an international treaty drafted in 1989 that aims to prevent hazardous wastes from being dumped in the developing world (wastes exported for reuse and recycling are allowed under the treaty, however). The United States is one of the few countries in the world that have not yet ratified the convention. As it stands now, e-waste exports from the United States are illegal only under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), enacted in 1976, is a Federal law of the United States contained in 42 U.S.C. §§6901-6992k. It is usually pronounced as "rick-rah" or "Wreck-rah. , and within that law, only if the exports wind up disposed of overseas. As long as the export goal is "recycling," U.S. shippers can legally send e-wastes wherever they wish.
Despite repeated inquiries, the EPA EPA eicosapentaenoic acid.
n.pr See acid, eicosapentaenoic.
n. would not elaborate further on the U.S. position regarding e-waste exports and their associated environmental impacts, except to say the agency has for several years negotiated with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), (in French: Organisation de coopération et de développement économiques; OCDE) is an international organisation of thirty countries that accept the principles of representative democracy and a free market on a program that will provide "greater assurance that exports of recyclable materials will be managed in an environmentally sound manner." No release date for the program was provided.
Meanwhile, a number of voluntary e-waste export reduction efforts are under way in the United States. In 2003, the EPA created the "Plug-In To eCycling" program, which promotes safe domestic recycling of electronic equipment by consumers and businesses. BAN has produced a document it calls the "Electronic Recycler's Pledge of True Stewardship," which can be signed by companies that promise not to send e-wastes to landfills, incinerators, or developing countries. And the WR3A has developed a new "e-certification program" to help e-waste generators find recyclers who can process their deliveries in an environmentally sustainable way.
All these programs have their work cut out for them--the electronics industry thrives on obsolescence ob·so·les·cent
1. Being in the process of passing out of use or usefulness; becoming obsolete.
2. Biology Gradually disappearing; imperfectly or only slightly developed. . Computers, cell phones, and other gadgets go out of date quickly, sometimes within months of release. Indeed, e-waste is now considered the fastest growing segment of the municipal waste stream in the United States. But the United States is also weak in legitimate repair and reuse, discarding items that represent real income for educated repairpeople in other countries. And Africa, with its own economy dependent on the leftovers, is left picking through electronic trash. "There's just a lot more junk going to Africa now," Ingenthron says. "In Asia, the buyers tend to know more about the material than the sellers. But in Africa, it's the other way around."