Toxic electronic waste was tracked to developing countries, says report
A new report has revealed that UK is the worst offender for “illegally” exporting toxic electronic waste to developing countries, following a two-year investigation that tracked shipments from 10 European countries. The investigation by the environmental watchdog the Basel Action Network (BAN) had put GPS trackers on 314 units of computers, LCD monitors and printers placed in recycling facilities in 10 countries. Researchers mapped what they said was the export of 11 items to Ghana, Nigeria, Pakistan, Tanzania, Thailand, Pakistan, Hong Kong and Ukraine.
Electronic scrap is considered a hazardous waste by the European Union (EU) due to toxic parts containing substances such as mercury, lead and flame retardants. Exports of such hazardous waste to non-OECD and non-EU countries are illegal under EU law. The UK was on top of the list of suspected illegal shipments, all to developing countries, with five followed by Denmark and Ireland with three each. These computers and LCD monitors were shipped to developing countries after they were tracked and placed in various council recycling centres in England and Scotland.
Italy, Spain, Germany and Poland also exported electronic scrap to developing countries in what are suspected to be illegal shipments. By extrapolating the illegal export rates to developing countries from all the 28 member states of the EU, the report estimated that a total of 352,474 metric tonnes of e-scrap was being illegally exported each year, which could fill 17,466 40-foot intermodal containers that would stretch back-to-back on 18-wheel trucks for 401 kilometers. The 19 exports are said to have travelled an average of 4,127 kilometers each and a total of 78,408 kilometers. Jim Puckett, Director of BAN, said if there was a theme in this report, it was that “the circular economy will never be realised as long as the ‘leakage’ we have documented is allowed to continue.”
He noted they have seen the EU in recent months and years making moves “that would undo their leadership role in protecting the interests of developing countries from the scourge of hazardous waste dumping. They have done so by pushing to blur the strict divide between what is defined as waste and what is defined as non-waste with respect to used electronics.”
At the same time, Europe has been rightly promoting the circular economy, said Puckett. “However, a true circular economy cannot tolerate cost externalities, for example allowing actors to avoid paying for proper waste disposal by dumping it on those that can never present the actor with the bill for the damage done – i.e., populations and environments of developing countries,” he underlined.
He pointed out that weaker economies and communities are being exploited by the rich “who are now intent on pressing for ‘cradle to cradle’ and ‘waste is food’ while turning a blind eye to the fact that ‘recycling’ and ‘re-use’ and now ‘circular economy’ are increasingly being misappropriated as green passwords to a global waste circus and horror show.”
Africa was by far the region of the world most targeted by EU e-scrap exporters. The continent received seven exported units (five to Nigeria, one to Ghana, and one to Tanzania) of tracked equipment (64% of the shipments leaving the EU). Reacting to the report, Chris Smith, National Intelligence Manager at the UK Environment Agency commented: “The Environment Agency takes these matters very seriously with a proactive criminal intelligence led team in place that is dedicated to detecting and preventing illegal waste shipments from England.
“However, our challenge is vast. Detecting illegal waste shipments is the ultimate hunt for the needle in a haystack, and this is where partner-ships allow us to extend our reach and effectiveness. By providing the Environment Agency with an early insight into their tracker deployment, the Basel Action Network enabled us to quickly and efficiently close down four illegal waste operators who exported the electrical waste containing their trackers,” he noted, also stating that there is still much work to do to stop the illegal shipment of waste. “Whilst our partnership has achieved positive environmental outcomes we must continue to adapt and evolve to tackle the fluid and ever-changing waste export market with enhanced engagement from the competent authorities in countries receiving illegal waste shipments.”
In the key findings, the report pointed out that due to the lack of proper waste management in the recipient developing countries, including open burning of e-scrap, there is certain to be local contamination, human exposure, and crop contamination from the illegal e-scrap they receive.
“The export rates identified in this study following real WEEE in real time remain far too high when one considers that we have only been able to put an eye on the tip of an iceberg of the vast quantities of toxic WEEE generated per annum in the EU,” said Puckett. “When extrapolated, as we have shown, the figures represent truly frightening amounts of EU leakage.”
BAN concludes from this study that while the EU is far ahead of the United States, for the 28 countries of the EU which have ratified the Basel Convention and the Basel Ban Amendment, and thus have legal barriers to international waste dumping in place, 339,446 tonnes of hazardous electronic waste flowing to developing countries each year is unacceptable. Far more can be done to prosecute the robust illegal trade, including working with target countries such as Nigeria to stem the toxic tide.
Further, BAN called upon the EU not to corrupt the worthy goals of the circular economy to use that term of art as a new password for increasing externalization of costs and harm to developing countries through liberalising trade in broken, non-functional electronic waste with a new “Repairables Loophole” in the laws of Europe or at the Basel Convention.
Over the last three years many countries around the world have begun to act against scrap imports from the developed countries. China was the first to implement a ban on various types of scrap imports. The nation started its environmental protection campaign in 2013 and in 2018 it strictly imposed restrictions on the import of various types of scrap material, particularly plastics.
Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam, some of the countries the scrap was being diverted to following China’s ban, soon realised the impact that the large quantities of scrap flowing into their countries could have upon the environment, and recently placed restrictions on imports of certain types of waste. In August 2018, Thailand announced it would ban imports of various types of electronic and plastic scrap within a stipulated period. Malaysia also announced a ban in October 2018 to stem the tide of plastic waste that was posing a threat to the environment and human health.