The findings of an investigation into dumping of used electronics equipment in Nigeria came as no surprise to African IT leaders, who say that if African governments fully realized the harm being done, they would take action. A report about the investigation, conducted by the Basel Action Network (BAN) calls on governments globally to pressure electronics manufacturers to remove toxic chemicals from their products "at the earliest possible date" and also urges consumers to take responsibility for their electronic waste.
"This is a contentious issue and if our governments understood it, they would do something about it," said Dorcus Muthoni of LinuxChix Africa, an organization campaigning for the adoption of open-source software in Kenya.
As BAN notes in its latest report, however, "much of the growth in the IT sector in developing countries has been fueled by the importation of hand-me-down, used equipment from rich, developed countries, whose consumers are all too happy to find buyers for it. As a result, many brokers and businesses have sprung up to channel used equipment from North to South, rich to poor."
BAN is a nonprofit group based in Seattle that involves a worldwide network of environmental activists focused on "confronting the excesses of unbridled free trade in the form of 'Toxic Trade' ... and its devastating impact on global environmental justice." The group focuses on human rights and the environment and aims to heighten awareness of and prevent the dumping of toxic waste and pollution in poor and developing countries. Its investigation into electronic-waste, or e-waste, dumping in Lagos, Nigeria, is the topic of BAN's latest report, released earlier this week.
Improperly discarded electronics can create hazardous waste from flame retardants used in plastics and circuit boards, solders containing lead and tin, barium and lead in cathode ray tubes, mercury, and beryllium alloys in connectors, among other potential environmental hazards, the BAN report noted.
One of the people interviewed for the report told BAN that "This thing is happening because they are poor. Poor countries will accept anything," said Richard Gutierrez, BAN's toxics policy analyst.
While all of the major U.S. PC vendors have recycling programs in place for used IT equipment, such products are often sold to brokers for disposal and wind up in countries such as Nigeria, but also elsewhere in Africa and in Asia. Some of the equipment is repaired or refurbished for use in those countries, becoming important components in bridging the "digital divide," but a lot of the gear -- up to 75 percent, according to some estimates -- is beyond repair and ends up in dumps or landfills.
"Seen at ground level, the massive importation of used equipment is a success story seriously clouded by the smoke of a growing environmental and health disaster," the BAN report said. "The reality is that this burgeoning new trade is not driven by altruism, but rather by the immense profits that can be made through it and those involved are oblivious to, or unconcerned with, its adverse consequences. Too often, justifications of 'building bridges over the digital divide' are used as excuses to obscure and ignore the fact that these bridges double as toxic waste pipelines to some of the poorest communities and countries in the world. While supposedly closing the 'digital divide,' we are opening a 'digital dump'."