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Dumped in Africa: Britain’s toxic waste

Children exposed to poisonous material in defiance of UK law

Tonnes of toxic waste collected from British municipal dumps is being sent illegally to Africa in flagrant breach of this country’s obligation to ensure its rapidly growing mountain of defunct televisions, computers and gadgets are disposed of safely.

Hundreds of thousands of discarded items, which under British law must be dismantled or recycled by specialist contractors, are being packaged into cargo containers and shipped to countries such as Nigeria and Ghana, where they are stripped of their raw metals by young men and children working on poisoned waste dumps.

In a joint investigation by The Independent, Sky News, and Greenpeace, a television that had been broken beyond repair was tracked to an electronics market in Lagos, Nigeria, after being left at a civic amenity site in Basingstoke run by Hampshire Country Council. Under environmental protection laws It was classified as hazardous waste and should never have left the UK.

The television, fitted with a satellite tracking device, was bought by a London-based dealer, one of dozens of operators buying up a significant proportion of the estimated 940,000 tonnes of domestic electronic waste, or e-waste, produced in the UK each year and sending it for export.

Investigators bought back the television after a 4,500-mile journey from Tilbury Docks in Essex to the giant Alaba electronics market in Lagos, where up to 15 shipping containers of discarded electronics from Europe and Asia arrive every day. At least a third of the contents of each container is broken beyond use and transferred to dumps where waste pickers scavenge amid a cocktail of burning heavy metals and dioxins. The television is just one example of a broader problem with the enforcement of the legislation, which permits the export of functioning equipment but prohibits broken electronic goods from being sent outside the EU to a country with a developing economy.

Such is the confused state of the recycling industry, with some local authorities collating figures on the amount of waste being exported and others simply handing the task to sub-contractors, that the e-waste body representing the electronics industry admits abuse is widespread.

Claire Snow, the director of the Industry Council for Equipment Recycling (ICER), told The Independent: “It is clear that the system for collecting equipment which UK householders have thrown away is not working as well as it should.

“On the pretext of re-use, equipment which is clearly not suitable for any type of re-use is effectively being dumped in developing countries.”

Government figures show that 450,000 tonnes of e-waste is currently being treated in accordance with Britain’s waste electronic and electrical equipment laws, which place a responsibility on manufacturers to meet the environmental cost. But with the average Briton throwing away four pieces of e-waste every year, approximately 500,000 tonnes is going unaccounted for. Industry research seen by The Independent estimates that at least 10,000 tonnes of waste televisions and 23,000 tonnes of computers classified as hazardous waste are being illegally exported as part of a wider e-waste market worth “tens of millions of pounds”.

Campaigners say dealers offering around £3 for a television and £1 for a computer monitor to waste sites are undercutting specialist recycling companies, creating a “grey market”.

Britain is responsible for around 15 per cent of the EU’s total e-waste, which is growing three times faster than any other muncipal waste stream.

Martin Hojsik, toxics campaigner for Greenpeace International, said: "Companies can stop this illegal toxic trade now by ensuring their goods are free from hazardous components. It is critical they and governments take full responsibility for the safe recycling of their products and put an end to the growing e-waste dumps that are poisoning people."

Bosses at Hampshire County Council last night launched an inquiry into its waste sites but insisted it and its household waste site contractor, Hopkins Recycling, only used dealers who exported functional equipment.

A spokesman for Consumers International, which is campaigning for tightened e-waste controls, said: “The sight of children scavenging toxic wastelands overflowing with the West’s unwanted computers and televisions makes a mockery of international bans to prevent the dumping of e-waste. Western governments, including the UK, have shown little desire to deal with the root cause of this problem.”