Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) has revealed that what it calls “a toxic flood of discarded technology” is illegally leaving the UK to wash up in Africa.
The agency’s new report: “System Failure: The UK’s harmful trade in electronic waste” says that disposing of e-waste is fast becoming big business and an 18-month under-cover investigation shows that the chance to make a quick buck at the expense of the developing world is too tempting for some to resist.
E-waste most commonly comprises everyday electrical goods such as mobile phones, televisions, stereos, laptops, PCs and printers. European Union regulations require it to be properly recycled, either in Europe or in other developed countries.
But EIA investigators probing the illegal export of waste cathode ray tubes (CRTs) have uncovered a lucrative international e-waste black market involving many players at every level, from small-time electronic brokers to large organisations, local councils and even major central government institutions.
Illegally shipped out in bulk to developing countries, the waste is stripped down to bare components by primitive methods: copper wires are bundled and set alight to remove flame-resistant coatings, emitting toxic dioxins; CRT monitors are smashed with hammers, releasing plumes of lead dust.
In some instances, poverty drives children to carry out this work to help support their families, and the potential health consequences for them could be dire: reproductive and developmental problems, damaged immune, nervous and blood systems, kidney damage and impaired brain development in the young.
According to the EIA, the UK appears to be an especially large contributor to the problem, with the majority of its illegal shipments arriving in Nigeria and Ghana, despite ostensibly working under the scrutiny of companies approved by local government and Producer Compliance Schemes.
There is a demand in African countries for good quality second-hand electronic goods, the report says, but the high demand for items such as TVs, PCs and fridges is being exploited by unscrupulous traders and “waste tourists” – Africans who travel to the UK to buy used electronic goods from brokers. When these shipments arrive in African ports they often comprises as much as 75% waste but the profits to be made from the working goods are enough to make it viable, the EIA reveals.
In 2009, EIA investigators set out to infiltrate smuggling networks by established a front company to enable trade negotiations with a number of firms involved in exporting and trading in e-waste.
Investigators learned how traders frequently circumvent Customs checks by mislabelling waste CRTs as working, using generic terms such as “personal effects” or “used household goods” on shipping documents and adopting a ‘no-questions-asked’ approach, knowingly offering untested CRTs for export and so shirking their responsibility of due care.
EIA was offered untested CRTs by brokers who claimed to have contracts with various Government institutions, including the Ministry of Defence, the Fire Service and NHS.
In spring 2010, undercover investigators visited six civic amenity sites in Greater London to look for signs of e-waste leakage. At council recycling centres, they were shown how workers separated higher quality TVs from others being dumped. Investigators were told the sets are purchased by another company, which claims to refurbish them for export.
To check that only working TVs were being exported, EIA hid trackers inside TVs which were deliberately disabled beyond repair and left at the council sites. Several weeks later, one appeared in Nigeria and the other in Ghana, showing neither had been tested prior to export.
EIA has also drawn attention to the systematic failure of Producer Compliance Schemes in facilitating illegal trade. Information on contract rates paid to recyclers suggests that competition between the UK’s 36 Producer Compliance Schemes is so fierce that rates paid to recyclers are well below the minimum costs of recycling.
“EIA’s work clearly demonstrates the UK’s failure to take its environmental responsibility seriously,” says Fin Walravens, EIA senior campaigner. “Our e-waste isn’t a new problem and it isn’t going away. It’s time for the government and enforcement agencies to give this issue the resources and attention it warrants.”