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Electronic waste recycling faces challenges

November 3, 2009  »  Education4 Comments

Nigerian port cities are a prime destination. Source:

Electronic waste (e-waste) is quickly accumulating throughout the world without proper education or regulation. In 2005, Nigeria was receiving an estimated 60,000-90,000 tons of e-waste. Sales of electronic goods are increasing while lifespans are decreasing. This means an accelerated pace of disposal of circuit boards and monitors, many of which contain hard metals such as lead and cadmium, in addition to mercury. Improper laws in developed countries are essentially causing African nations to perpetuate the danger instead of innovate. Numerous African economies are now dependent on e-waste.

The predicament of African electronic waste management is even more complicated based on the fact that the problem exists on two fronts. Africa, along with every other continent, produces or purchases new electronic equipment that must be disposed of at the end of its lifespan. Additionally, and perhaps more problematic, is Africa’s adopted role as importer of electronic refuse from the United States and Europe. Port cities, such as Lagos, have especially poor e-waste disposal practices. According to moderate estimates, the annual amount of e-waste in the European Union will rise to roughly 12 million tonnes within the next ten years. Furthermore, a 2008 Greenpeace Study points out that only 25% of e-waste is properly recycled in Europe. That number is only 20% in the U.S. and a mere 1% in developing nations. A recent video from the East Africa Report focuses mainly on Kenyan e-waste, although the themes resonate for every nation.

Import-export business:

An article from Environmental Health Perspectives explains how difficult the e-waste export business is to track:

…there are virtually no data concerning the global e-waste trade—harmonized tariff schedules that dictate fees for export commodities don’t assign codes to waste electronics other than batteries. There are tariff classifications for scrap (e.g., plastic, metal) and for new electronics by type (e.g., computer monitors, TV sets). Because the importers don’t want to pay tariffs on a five-year-old computer based on the price of a new one, they often use scrap classifications, measured in pounds, says Robin Ingenthron, acting president of the World Reuse, Repair and Recycling Association (WR3A), a nonprofit group trying to establish fair trade standards for the practice. Consequently, the volume, characteristics, and destinations of e-waste exports are shrouded in mystery.

There is nothing morally or environmentally inappropriate about importing used computers to be used in Africa. However, the problem is inherent in the African import business, which relies on gross weight, and not functionality of the electronic goods. Estimates reason that 100,000 computers or CPUs, or 44,000 TV sets enter Africa each month through Lagos alone. Only 25% of a container’s computers can be expected to function, and therefore continue on to the repair/recovery industry where they will make their way to the private or educational sector. The rest will be trashed. Take, for example, a possible transation:

I could come up with half a load of good stuff and say, ‘If you want it, you have to take the bad,’ and sell it all by the pound,” the recycler says. “Then the guy in Africa will crunch the numbers and say, ‘OK, if you put a few more Pentium IIIs in there, you’ve got a deal.’”

What happens to e-waste once it reaches Africa?

Africans may be increasingly good on development end of electronics, but as a whole, they are negligent on other end (disposal). The vast majority of e-waste is taken to landfills where children will search for valuable materials amid the broken glass and chemicals. When the piles get too high, the waste is torched, releasing dangerous chemicals into the air and food supply, or, metals like copper and iron are extracted, then plastic is burned. And it’s not only the population who unaware of environmental effects – members of Parliament are just as unaware.

Policy and programs:

A few international standards exist, although they have faced less-than-ideal enforcement. New policies are currently in draft form and can be expected in the coming months.

  • Basel Action Network (BAN) aims to provide information regarding toxic trade, advocate for international policy, and conduct field research
  • Ghana Business News article:
  • Dumping of e-waste has been illegal since 1992, when the Basel Convention entered into force. According to this international treaty, export of any toxic waste -including e-waste- from OECD countries is strictly forbidden. However, in the European legislation the term “reuse” offers a loophole, allowing old electronics to be taken in countries like Ghana and Nigeria. Clearly, this loophole has to be closed. The EU has to put in place legislation and mechanisms to make sure that only usable electronics that are tested and certified can be sent to developing countries.

  • Scientific American article:
  • Although the U.S. is one the world’s largest producers of electronic waste (e-waste), it is hardly a leader in addressing this problem, given that the country has “no legally enforceable federal policies requiring comprehensive recycling of e-waste or elimination of hazardous substances from electronic products,” the researchers say. Instead, the U.S. government has largely delegated e-waste decision making to the states, where only 19 have e-waste laws (rules are pending in 14 others).

  • HP has started a program in South Africa to help with electronics recycling
  • e-Waste Assosiate of South Africa (eWASA) informs citizens how to properly dispose of their electronics waste and provides fantastic resources for educators
  • Europe has standards limiting the hazardous chemical content of products


Although it has existed for greater than a decade, the problem of e-waste disposal is still in its early stages. Still, action must be taken by the entire world before developing regions are stuck with unwieldy garbage. Africa has the opportunity to learn from the developed world’s mistakes. Individual governments must address the issue and ensure that organizations exist to recycling old electronics. Although Africa still must depend on exports from the rest of the world to strengthen its ICT equipment supply, the individual nations must still take responsibility for their waste, imported or not. Growth goals will need to be balanced with recycling goals. Additionally, the African computer repair industry must recognize that it can utilize goods that would otherwise be thrown out.

  • hi, Many discarded electronic devices in the US wind up being dismantled overseas using crude and unsafe methods!

  • Martin


    we are currently writing a report on the global e-waste situation and to visualize the problem we are looking for relevant graphs and pictures. The exportation map in this post is excellent and we would be very interested in using it. The source link is dead unfortunately, would there be any other way to get hold of it? Or do you know if we can use it as it is?

    Thanks in advance,
    Martin & Fredrik

  • After doing some quick searching, it seems as if the image is actually attributed to: Doucette, Gopal Dayaneni and John. System Error. San Jose, CA: Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, 2005. A higher-res version of the image can be found here:

    Thanks for the interest and good luck with the report,

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