New Internationalist

Toxic waste

The West has been using Africa to dump its toxic waste and unwantables for years and continues despite it having being illegal since 1992. In 1998 the EU implemented a ban on the exportation of hazardous waste from the West to the developing world, although the USA, Canada and New Zealand refused to sign. Just after the tsunami of December 2004, barrels of medical and chemical waste left on the shores of Somalia were broken open and the contents spilled. Some of the waste had been there since the early 1980s when warlords received large payments from the West to dump the waste, which came mainly from Switzerland and Italy. More recently an international plan to bring waste from the West to be dumped in Somalia was exposed during the investigation into the death of an Italian journalist.

In the late 1980s large amounts of toxic waste from Italy were found on Koko Beach, Delta State in Nigeria, resulting in burns, vomiting blood and partial paralysis by those who came into contact with it. In 2006 a Dutch ship dumped tons of caustic washings, used to clean oil drums, on Abidjan leaving people complaining of nausea, headaches and vomiting. The dumping of toxic waste has been replaced by dumping of electronic waste: computers and mobile phones which contain cadmium, lead, mercury and other poisons. 

Two years later the dumping continues. The figures are astounding: millions of tonnes leave Europe each year, so where does it go? Mainly to Africa, often under the guise of ‘charitable donations’, where it is left in landfills and ponds and where much of it is burnt, sending out huge quantities of lead and mercury which then enter the food chain. 

According to a report published by the Basel Action Network and the Silicon Valley Toxins Coalition titled ‘Exporting Harm: The Techno-Trashing of Asia’, between 50 to 80 per cent of e-waste collected for recycling in the United States is exported to developing nations such as China, India and Pakistan, where the environment is being polluted and local men, women and children are being exposed to toxins.

According to the European Environment Agency (EEA) more than 15,000 tonnes of colour television sets were exported from the EU to African countries in 2005. On average 35 tonnes, or more than 1000 units of used television sets, arrive every day in Ghana, Nigeria or Egypt. ‘It would appear that the EU exports a significant quantity of used electrical and electronic products to developing countries that do not have an adequate waste management infrastructure,’ the EEA report ‘Waste Without Borders’ concluded. ‘These are then probably subject to treatment that poses a threat to the environment and human health.’

The dumps become ‘working’ areas for poor people, mainly children searching for scraps of metal and other bits they can sell. Every month about 500,000 used computers arrive in Lagos alone, with only a small percentage working and the rest ending up as toxic waste. NGOs, businesses, unscrupulous local businessmen but most of all the EU are complicit in the trade of electronic waste arriving in West Africa from Europe as this video shows.

But there is also the huge amount of local waste that is produced and most African countries have not yet begun to take recyling seriously. I consider plastic bags to be probably the main environmental and educational challenge faced by many countries. In Nigeria alone there are simply millions of them everywhere, including the sea. Beaches that 10 years ago were clean and bag free are now full of black and blue and white plastic bags; mountains of plastic rubbish – bags, bottles, containers – litter the roadside, because there is no environmental consciousness. While Europe cleans itself up, it uses Africa as a dumping ground for its own waste, particularly electronic waste. But waste – whether plastic bags, electronic or toxic – belongs to all of us. Batteries and computers dumped in Africa not only pollute locally but eventually the effects of the pollution come back to where they started – Europe and elsewhere.

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