How a tagged television set uncovered a deadly trade

Cahal Milmo
Wednesday 18 February 2009 01:00 GMT
(Greenpeace/Kristian Buus)

A choking pall of thick black smoke hangs over the small mountain of smashed circuit boards, shards of glass and plastic carcasses of televisions and computers that is slowly leaching a stream of toxic heavy metals and carcinogenic chemicals into the adjacent river.

The reek of burning plastic comes from a small fire being stoked by a young boy with heavily bloodshot eyes who is melting the plastic shielding from a tangle of electric wiring to extract its copper core. After breathing in the dioxin-spiked fumes for 45 minutes he will have enough bare wire to earn about 60p.

Dozens of “scavenger children” scour the waste looking for the fragments of microchips, motherboards and cathode ray tube hubs they can melt down. In scratching a living removing tiny quantities of raw material, they expose themselves to a cocktail of neurotoxins and carcinogens.

Welcome to Alaba electronics market in the sprawling Nigerian city of Lagos – the final destination for thousands of tonnes of televisions, computers, DVD players and other electronic items that previously sat in British homes and offices before being taken for disposal to a municipal waste site.

Most consumers making the journey to the local dump with their “e-waste” might expect their equipment to be disposed of properly and safely, even if they are unaware of the Waste Electronic and Electrical Equipment (WEEE) directive that requires the disposal or reuse of this waste without damage to the environment in the United Kingdom – or anywhere else.

The reality is shockingly different.

The tip at Alaba is the poisonous final resting place for the British equipment that supplies a thriving second-hand market. It is one of hundreds of dumps dotted around the developing world that deal with a tide of 6.6 million tonnes of e-waste flowing each year from the European Union.

Under the WEEE directive, which became law in Britain two years ago, any item of e-waste which no longer works, such as a television, is classified as hazardous and cannot be exported to non-OECD countries. However, a tip-off from a local authority insider that unusable e-waste was being bought and sent for export led to a joint investigation by The Independent, Sky News and Greenpeace.

A large television set, with the base cut away to render it beyond repair, was left at a Hampshire County Council civic amenity site in Basingstoke by investigators in October last year.

Under the Basel Convention, which regulates WEEE, it should have been disposed of by a specialist recycler, but the set was bought along with other electronic items by BJ Electronics (UK) Ltd, a removals and recycling company based in Walthamstow, east London. Documents obtained by The Independent show that BJ Electronics pays waste sites for every item it receives, from £1 for a computer monitor and £3 for a large television, to £5 for a stereo with a CD player.

It is one of about 200 companies and individuals who tour municipal waste sites in Britain buying equipment.

A satellite tracking device inside the television showed it was taken to BJ Electronics’ warehouse before being sold on to another company, who loaded it on to a cargo container bound for Tilbury Docks in Essex. BJ Electronics has a testing bench inside its warehouse and insists it tests all items before selling them to an exporter. It has not explained why it did not detect that the television was not functioning, but insists it always follows the relevant regulations and that it only exports working electronic devices.

The economics of the illegal export trade are straightforward. A senior waste industry source told The Independent: “A whole consignment can be bought for a pittance from a civic amenity site, most of which will be working and a proportion of which will not. The system is supposed to filter out the hazardous e-waste and allow a legitimate second hand export trade. But what is happening is it is all being lumped together and sent abroad, where the working items can be sold for £20 and the broken stuff just thrown away to cause pollution.”

Within days of the TV arriving at Walthamstow, it was placed in a container and loaded on to the MV Grande America cargo ship bound for Lagos, from where it was unloaded and delivered to one of the hundreds of second hand dealers in Alaba market.

It was just one of up to 15 containers of used electronics arriving in Alaba from Europe and Asia every day. Igwe Chenadu, chairman of the Alaba Technicians Association, said that of the 600 to 700 televisions in each container around 250 will not be working. He said: “We find that for each container about 35 to 40 per cent of its contents do not work. Of those, only 35 per cent can be fixed. The rest goes to the scavenger children.”

With an average computer monitor or CRT containing about 3.5kg of lead and the burning to extract it releasing a cloud of lethal particles, the human cost of the failure to stop e-waste at British borders is distressingly high.

Professor Oladele Osibanjo, director at the Basel Convention Regional Co-ordinating Centre for Africa, said: “We have about half a million used computers coming into Lagos every month, and only 25 per cent are working. The volume is so large that the people who trade it burn it like ordinary refuse. Our studies have shown the levels of metals in the waste are far beyond the thresholds set by Europe.

“The lead, the mercury and all the other toxins bio-accumulate. The people that break open these CRT monitors tell me that they suffer from nausea, headaches and chest and respiratory problems. As a result of breaking these things and burning the wires, the children inhale a lot fumes.”

It is a Dickensian trade that the television sent to Lagos would have entered if it had not been intercepted by investigators just as it was being unloaded from its container by a second-hand dealer. For $20 it was bought back and became just one less item of hazardous e-waste polluting west Africa.

Threat to health

Many substances in electronic waste can be lethal. A cathode-ray tube (CRT) contains on average 2.5kg of lead, a neurotoxin that can harm the kidneys and reproductive system. Uncontrolled burning of PVC shielding around wires and the plastic casings of gadgets produces highly toxic dioxins. Barium in older CRTs can cause stomach upsets, muscle weakness and breathing difficulties while chromium anti-corrosion coatings are a carcinogen in certain forms. Mercury in circuit boards and switch relays is linked to brain and kidney damage.

Threat of ID theft from discarded computers

One of the most damaging aspects of the trade in e-waste is the number of defunct computers making their way to the developing world, complete with hard drives full of confidential information.

There is a legitimate and valuable market in refurbished computers collected from large organisations in Britain, which are donated to charities for distribution to the developing world, and whose work risks being damaged by unscrupulous exporters.

The problem is that thousands of computers which cannot be usefully refurbished are also collected on the pretence of being for reuse and end up being sold in markets from Ghana to Nigeria, to Pakistan to China – along with data that has not been deleted.

Consumers International, a London-based NGO campaigning for tighter controls on e-waste, has found computers from British local authorities, including Westminster City Council, for sale in Accra, the Ghanaian capital, while computers with details of prescriptions given to patients at a pharmacy in Leeds, including personal information and dates of birth, have been found on waste sites in the city.

In Nigeria, computers have been found with sensitive documents from the World Bank, and the case records from child protection services in America.

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