Greenpeace Tracks Down E-Waste Trail


Greenpeace says that IT vendors must do more to make tech products more sustainable and less toxic

Environmental campaign group Greenpeace has stepped up its campaign against the illegal export of waste electronics to Africa and other continents with the launch of an interactive map which details how the material is shipped from developed countries to be broken down often in crude conditions in the countries such as Ghana and Nigeria.

The Electronic Waste Trail map provides an overview of the trade in waste technology which the green group states is a direct result of the poorly resourced and organised recycling laws introduced in the UK and US in the early 1990s. “In the 1990s, governments in the EU, Japan and some US states set up e-waste ‘recycling’ systems,” the group states. “But many countries did not have the capacity to deal with the sheer quantity of e-waste they generated or with its hazardous nature.”

The interactive map provides an overview of how e-waste is illegally exported from the UK and the US to countries in Africa, as well as India and China. Greenpeace cites statistics from the UK which show that at least 23,000 metric tonnes of “undeclared or ‘grey’ market electronic waste was illegally shipped in 2003 to the Far East, India, Africa and China”.

The group claims that export of e-waste to India in particular is escalating. “We have also found a growing e-waste trade problem in India. 25,000 workers are employed at scrap yards in Delhi alone, where 10-20,000 tonnes of e-waste is handled each year, 25 percent of this being computers. Other e-waste scrap yards have been found in Meerut, Ferozabad, Chennai, Bangalore and Mumbai,” the group states.

Commenting on the campaign, Tony Roberts, chief executive of IT charity Computer Aid, which refurbishes PCs for re-use in developing countries to help keep old technology out of the waste stream, said that the key to tackling the problem of e-waste is to create “polluter pays” recycling legislation – such as Europe’s Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive – in developing countries. “All countries need environmental protection law that covers e-waste,” he told eWEEK Europe UK. “Laws must ban all e-waste import – promote EEE reuse and compel recycling of domestic WEEE.”

Roberts added that a lot of focus has been put on the export of e-waste from Europe to developing countries but relatively developed economies such as Nigeria also produce large amounts of local e-waste which currently isn’t controlled by any local regulations. “The Nigerian economy for example consumes many millions of new EEE items annually: TVs, mobile phones, air-con systems, fridges, kettles and computers. This necessitates building the recycling plant capacity described by Greenpeace as in place in ‘developed’ countries. OEMs must pay for this in Africa as they already do in Europe under the Polluter Pays Principle.”

For its part Greenpeace backs the kind of re-use projects facilitated by Computer Aid but also claims that vendors must do more to make it easier for customers to safely dispose of old technology without simply dumping it into the waste stream. “To address the rising tide of e-waste, all manufactures must offer free and convenient recycling of their products to all their customers. Where companies are unwilling to do this tough legislation is needed to ensure electronics are safely recycled,” the organisation states. “Japan has effective recycling legislation and Sony reports that it collects 53 percent of it’s old products in Japan. That’s five times better than the global average for major PC makers and shows that solutions are already available.”

The green group also states that some of the harmful effects of computers being broken down in basic conditions in developing countries could be avoided by eliminating more toxic compounds used in the manufacture of technology. “One clear solution is for the major electronics companies to eliminate the worst toxic chemicals from their products and improve their recycling programs,” the charity states.

At the end of 2009, Greenpeace released a report entitled Switching On To Green Electronics which details how the charity believes how manufacturers can improve the sustainability and cut the use of toxic compounds in their products. “Greenpeace believes that manufacturers of electronic goods should take responsibility for the entire life-cycle of their products; from production, through manufacture and to the very end of the products’ lives. Since the start of our campaign in 2005, many of the leading companies have improved their environmental policies and practice,” the group states.

Computer Aid says it has professionally refurbished over 150,000 PCs for use in schools, hospitals and community projects in more than 100 countries. The charity is an Authorised Approved Treatment Facility, licensed by the Environment Agency, to handle equipment under the UK’s Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) laws.


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