In Lagos, Nigeria, truckloads of electronic waste illegally imported from developed countries is causing problems for human health and the environment.
It’s a towering mountain of waste that greets the eyes as cars zip by on nearby highways and head into the central area of Lagos.
African countries like Nigeria and Ghana bear the brunt: An estimated 500 containers, each carrying about 500,000 used computers and other electronic equipment, enter Nigeria’s ports every month from the USA, Europe and Asia.
Formerly Nigeria’s capital city, this commercial nerve center of Africa’s biggest and fastest growing economies and is its most populated urban center, with an estimated 21 million residents.
But for all of Lagos’ appeal, the mega-city is drowning in rubbish. It is mostly plastic waste, which threatens the environment in no small measure. Yet, growing piles of another kind of waste could prove to be far more dangerous.
Overwhelming amounts of electronic waste are piling up in landfills across the port city. Also referred to as Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) or simply e-waste, it involves discarded items that have power or battery supplies.
Old electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) such as computers, phones, printers, televisions and refrigerators, commonly end up as e-waste.
E-waste is one of the fastest growing types of waste in the world. But globally, the Eco-friendly recycling of e-waste is optimally low: more than half of almost 50 million metric tonnes of e-waste generated worldwide ends up in landfills or is illegally transported.
As trendier technologies emerge, the lifespans of consumer electronics are getting even shorter, worsening the issue. The world is currently generating e-waste faster than it can be recycled or repurposed.
Developed nations are responsible for more than half of that. In 2014, the United States alone generated 11 million metric tonnes of e-waste, 80% of which was exported to poorer countries where they are either sold for re-use, mined for raw materials or abandoned in landfills.
A ready market for used EEE encourages the importation, 80 million of the 200 million Nigerians live on less than $2 a day, yet more than 90 million use internet enabled-gadgets.
Most people will buy used phones and computers rather than spend all their money on new ones. It’s a market that yields quick returns he says, perhaps more so than selling only brand new products.
However, more than half of used EEE imported to the country is near end of life or completely damaged. Apart from computers and phones, the e-waste also include air conditioners and LCD TVs, which contain mercury.
It is illegal to import end-of-life EEE, which is basically e-waste, into the country according to national laws, but corrupted systems at Lagos ports mean Western backed smugglers can sneak their consignments in.
Cables and wires are useful too. Thousands of bundles of wires are burnt every day to get to the copper. The burning activity also releases toxic fumes into the air, affecting the scavengers and residents in the area.
Containers marked as carrying vehicles are filled with e-waste – a trick employed to mislead port officials since importing vehicles is legal – continue to dock in Lagos from the USA, China and Europe, according to the Global E-waste Monitor.
E-waste dumping is not new or limited to Nigeria. In 1988, Italy shipped 18,000 barrels of toxic waste marked to a village in Delta State.
In 2016, an explosive investigation showed that GPS-tracked e-waste dropped off at American recycling companies ended up in Kenya. Every year, Ghana groans under the weight of 40,000 metric tonnes of imported e-waste.
Environmental experts are urging the Nigerian government to ratify the Bamako Treaty, a continental framework which aims to place an outright ban on the importation of hazardous waste.
Many agree that tighter law enforcement is needed at the ports to stop e-waste from coming in. An outright ban on used EEE would be too harsh and would put “most of the crime rings out of business”.
TRT World / ABC Flash Point News 2020.