Updated date:

Electronic Waste and Environmental Racism

Author:

Deepa is a freelance researcher and journalist. She writes and makes documentaries and videos.

Nigeria: Toxic Waste Dumps of the Affluent World

Koko, a port town in Nigeria, is a smoking gun of the toxic e-waste industry of the world. This industry, initially by conceit and then by consensus of power, turned this idyllic coastal suburb into a dump-yard saturated with poisonous chemicals. As early as 1987, ships carrying toxic e-waste began to arrive in Koko. It was a toxic leakage from the shipment kept onshore that drew the attention of the people first. When the dockworkers began to show signs of burning and paralytic episodes, people began to raise questions. Soon it became public knowledge that two Italian e-waste disposal companies paid an Italian importer stationed in Koko, and he, in turn, paid a local residential plot owner there to illegally get the e-waste of these companies dumped in Koko. Koko had enough of corrupt officers who gave the necessary permissions. It also was a port town where cargo inspections were rare occurrences. The journalists who visited Koko found about 3800 tons of toxic waste, filled in over 2000 drums in this dumping site. Eventually, the Nigerian government had to declare a 500-meter radius of land surrounding this toxic waste dump as unsafe for human entry. This incident gained international media attention and Italy had to take back the waste a few months later. The people of Koko had to fight a legal battle for 21 years to get compensation for the health issues they faced, thanks to the e-waste dump. The tip of the iceberg became invisible again when the Koko issue settled. This was in no way an end to the act of environmental racism practiced by the e-waste disposal companies, against Africa and Asia.

E-Waste Dumping in Africa and Asia

Many similar incidents where the developed nations treated the backward countries as their toxic waste dumping ground emerged over time. CNN reported that Nigeria was becoming the toxic waste dumping destination for developed nations. Greenpeace called it toxic colonialism. The businesses found it cheaper to dump e-waste in Africa rather than process it legally in their home countries because that would have cost them safety and taxation commitments. There is also a burgeoning electronic recycling market that thrives on the components of electronic gadgets salvaged from e-waste. Thousands of African people have become laborers in this e-waste recycling industry and they work in hazardous conditions, without any safety measures, breaking down e-waste and sorting different usable parts of it for recycling. Consumerism and fast-paced technology development render electronic items short-lived in their utility value in the developed world. Whereas this leads to a use and throw spree of electronic items in affluent societies, a vast majority of people of the poor countries such as Africa stay the least benefitted from technological advancements.

The E-Waste and Digital Divide

The political leadership of less developed countries views the first world’s electronic waste as an income opportunity for those in power as well as the unskilled working people. Many electronic gadgets have in them, aluminum, gold, copper, nickel, platinum, and silver. In African countries, those in the recycling business employ cheap labor available into recovering these metals to amass huge profits. Some authentic estimates made by organizations such as Greenpeace show that 80% of Europe’s e-waste get handled in unsafe environments.

Not only Nigeria, Ghana, China, and India also had been the destinations of e-waste recycling. E-waste also enters these countries in the form of donations. Old electronic equipment gets shipped into these destinations under the pretense that it will be used to help the underprivileged for accessing modern technologies. For students to have computers to learn, for villagers to have access to information, will be the slogans in disguise for getting rid of e-waste from the developed world’s backyard. New York Times in an article even mocked the “building bridges” and “bridging the digital divide” slogans behind these e-waste dumps. Sometimes, e-waste is also sold to poor countries as second-hand consumer goods.

Guinea-Bissau, another African country presented an extreme picture of the situation in 1988. The country accepted a contract of receiving $600 million worth of e-waste. The shocking side of it is, the country at that time had a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of one-fourth of this contract amount. International and domestic pressure mounted on Guinea-Bissau to not accept this contract as it made to national and international news. Finally, the government of Guinea-Bissau had to nullify the contract. The President of Benin, another African country, argued at the Lome Peace negotiations that the country was planning to import e-waste for the sake of its people’s survival and employment. For the waste disposing and reselling companies such as Nedlog Technology Group Inc., Jelly Wax Group, and SI Ecomar, it is evident, there was no dearth of political backing.

Disposal Costs of Hazardous Waste

An average computer monitor has 8 pounds of lead, plastic, flame retardants, and cadmium in it. Electronic waste has polluted the seas and rivers of the importing countries. There was a time when countries like the US used their e-waste for landfills. The "Valley of the Drums" in Kentucky was such a toxic waste dumping site. Severe contamination of the freshwater bodies surrounding this place made the communities resist these e-waste landfills. Along with that, the realization sank in that e-waste was full of toxic materials. This was also the moment when e-waste-disposing companies began to see Asian and African countries as new dumping sites.

It is estimated that only 2% of e-waste that reaches Nigeria gets re-used. The recycling companies claim that every part of the e-waste is re-used in the destination countries. The leachate contamination of freshwater bodies and agricultural lands from e-waste storage sites is a common problem faced by these recycling destinations.

E-Waste and Basel Convention

In 1989, the UN-led Basel Convention was put into action to control the illegal circulation and processing of e-waste and it became binding for all countries of the world in 1992. The convention covered e-waste transportation, recovery, and recycling. There are provisions in the Basel convention to see that e-waste is disposed of in an environmentally safe manner. There have to be proper contracts and agreements in place as delineated by the convention. Also, the exporting country should inform and get the permission of the importing country. Basel Convention gives developing countries differential treatment and allows them to prevent the e-waste from entering their country. Yet, the treaty falls short in many aspects. It does not completely ban hazardous e-waste of the developed countries from entering the less developed countries. This was a loophole wide enough for illegal transport, export, and import of e-waste to continue. The convention also lacks systems to ensure accountability and monitoring. Added to this, the developed countries continue to have laws that do not ban the export of e-waste. Overall, the illegal practices flourish and are business as usual.

Health Issues of E-Waste

Lead and heavy metals like Cadmium and Mercury, when leached into the surroundings from e-waste dumps cause an array of health issues. Lead affects the brain, kidneys, and endocrine system. Cadmium affects the liver and kidneys. Mercury gets accumulated in the food chain and moves from plants to animals and from them to humans. This chemical is found to cause serious brain damage. There is also the presence of Polyvinyl Chlorides in huge quantities in e-waste. These cause cancer when burned and inhaled. Often e-waste is burned or heated to recover the valuable metals in them. Nitrates from the e-waste have also polluted potable water across Nigeria.

The Nightmare Revisits Koko

In 2017, the waste shipments of an international oil company began to set anchor in Koko’s seashore. The company’s explanation to the media was that it was not toxic waste but sludge. They also said that they were just using Koko as a recycling location. Lab tests ordered by the government also indicated that the waste was not toxic. However, after 2017, not much news came out of Koko regarding this waste dumping and ‘recycling’. Before the 1980s, Koko was mainly an agrarian community the members of which were peasants, fishermen, and small traders. A majority of them lost their traditional livelihood to e-waste dumping.

Agbogbloshie: The World’s Largest E-Waste Dump

Agbogbloshie: Ghana’s Sodom

Agbogbloshie is a place in Accra, which is the capital of Ghana in Africa. It is the world’s largest e-waste recycling dump. About 80,000 people live in the slums that are close by to this dump. They live off recovering and selling copper and other metals from the e-waste. The place has acquired another name, Sodom, if one remembers, the city destroyed by God’s wrath, as narrated in Bible. Open burning to extract valuable metals is the common practice here. In Agbogbloshie, the 20-acre expanse of the waste dump, heaps of waste and fires burning constantly, the scrap workers covered in soot and dust, and the suffocating and ever-present smoke will make a visitor experience hell on earth. The soil of Agbogbloshie is already heavily contaminated with lead. The dioxin levels in the atmosphere are 220 times higher than what is estimated as safe for human inhalation. The recycling industry nowadays argues that 80 percent of the e-waste processed in this place comes from West Africa and Ghana and not from the western world. This is most unlikely because Africa is far behind the developed world in manufacturing and using electronic products. The 250000 tons of e-waste that reach Agbogbloshie every year cannot be the waste generated by this small developing country. Studies have shown that the workers of Agbogbloshie do not have the financial resources to use safer and more environment-friendly recovery technologies. Anyway, passing the buck has become the new norm in the world debate on electronic waste.

Sea Pirates and E-Waste

Pirate activity in the Somalian seas is directly attributed to the loss of livelihood of Somalian fishermen caused by e-waste contamination of their coastal seas. Ahmedou Ould-Sbdallah, the UN envoy to Somalia has publicly stated that Somalian cost had become a nuclear and e-waste dump for the western countries since Somalia started witnessing political instability. The fight of the fishermen to stop the contamination of their ocean wealth evolved gradually into actions of sea piracy. The Somalian delta is already polluted with the notorious oil spills of foreign oil companies stationed there.

Sea Pirates of Somalia

E-Waste Disposing Industry and Its Long Term Impacts

According to the estimates made in 2016, the e-waste-disposing companies of the world process 44.7 million metric tons of toxic waste every year. The entire African experience of e-waste dumping is like a social prism. It refracts racism and class dominance into a spectrum of social impacts- loss of livelihood, exploitation of labor, the decline in community health, and violent responses to the loss of inheritance by a people who lost all their natural wealth.

References

Status of e-waste Control in Nigeria, Presentation at the workshop on e-waste in West Africa, Accra, Ghana. 2009.

In the 1980s, Italy Paid a Nigerian Town $100 a month to store toxic waste- and it’s happening again, Stephanie Buck, Timeline.

Toxic Exports: The Transfer of Hazardous waste from Rich to Poor Countries, 2001.

Cleaning up Toxic IT equipment, E-week, Vol. 23.

Premier Farnell targets unregulated e-waste recycling in developing countries, EDN. Supply Chain.

This is what is likely to live in the world’s largest e-waste dumpsite, Sabeena Wahid, 2020.

The Global Environment and International Law, 2003.

Environmental Racism: Our Impact Overseas, Sea Witch Botanicals, 2021.

Challenges to Enforcement of Criminal Liability for Environmental Damage in

E-Waste: Environmental and Health Hazards, 2004. www.iowadrn.gov.

Undercover operation exposes illegal dumping of e-waste in Nigeria, Greenpeace, 2009.

High-tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health.

Iowa Department of Natural Resources, E-Waste: Environmental and Health Hazards.

© 2021 Deepa

Comments

Deepa (author) from India on September 27, 2021:

Thank you Umesh Chandra Bhatt. This has been a topic very close to my heart as it clearly proves that environmental destruction leads to livelihood loss and social unrest.

Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on September 27, 2021:

Very informative article and very realistic narration.

Related Articles