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Africa Recycles China and the U.S.’s E-waste

May 11 , 2015
  • Robert I. Rotberg

    Founding Director of Program on Intrastate Conflict, Harvard Kennedy School

Outside of Accra, Ghana’s capital, the world’s largest e-waste dump illegally receives discarded television monitors, ancient personal computers, old mobile telephones, toasters, shavers, and a host of other superseded gadgets and components containing electronic residues, silicon chips, wiring, and all of the new age’s inevitable remnants. Much of this e-waste stems from China, Europe, and the United States, the more dangerously to pollute this African site and others scattered across the continent. Africa needs to tell the developed world to keep its e-waste at home.

At the vast, waterlogged, site near Accra, boys and men pick through truckloads of e-waste daily, smashing with their feet and hands whatever they find, and then picking through the results with their fingers to find valuable metal residues, primarily copper, gold, and lead, capable of being sold in nearby markets – or sent back to China and the United States for re-use. Lots of plastic materials are also recovered as the dump is meticulously scavenged. These Ghanaian waste entrepreneurs also set fires across the dump, the better to melt circuit boards to reveal valuable metals. So acrid smoke is a constant factor, and young and more mature lungs suck in pollutants.

Picking through the e-waste, amid the particle-filled smoky air, is dangerous, so diseases of the lungs and skin, eye damage, burns, and untreated wounds are common among the scavengers of the Ghanaian and other African open dumps. Boys and men report chronic nausea, anorexia, debilitating headaches, and respiratory issues that never go away.

According to an April report from the United Nations University, more than 41 million metric tons of e-waste is produced globally each year., and an estimated 50 million metric tons will survive in 2050. Of the first total, 13 million metric tons is from microwaves, toasters, electric shavers, video cameras, and the like; 12 million from washing machines, clothes dryers, and so on; 7 million from large cooling and freezing equipment; 6 million from television screens and computer monitors; and 3 million from mobile telephones, pocket calculators, personal computers, printers, and the like. Of this gross amount, China annually discards at least 1.5 million metric tons of televisions, .50 tons of refrigerators, .35 tons of washing machines, 1 million tons of air conditioners, and .70 million tons of computers, plus a few tons of gadgets and components. This 6-7 million ton mass of e-waste amounted to 15 percent of the global total, just behind the sum of detritus produced in the United States.

But of those home-grown waste totals, China collected only 1.5 million metric tons (29 percent), much lower than Europe’s 40 percent, and far ahead of the U. S., which only managed to gather 15 percent of its e-waste. As China grows even more prosperous and consumer-oriented, so will its e-waste stream, much of which will inevitably be exported to West Africa.

What is not re-cycled at home and by hand by 60,000 waste-workers in vast open-air factories near Guiyu in Guangdong Province, the home of Chinese e-waste, will increasingly be shipped abroad, especially to Africa. There the processing of e-waste is much less expensive, relying as it does on the bare bones and life-threatening methods employed in Ghana. African environmental watchdogs fear that Ghana and Nigeria will continue to be the e-waste processing countries of choice, that other West African nations will accept e-waste, and that Africans will end up ill and debilitated as they pore over the developed world’s polluting e-waste.

Africa itself generates comparatively little e-waste, and only a handful of the continent’s countries have enacted legislation regulating the collection and treatment of e-waste. The biggest discarders of e-waste are Egypt, South Africa, and Nigeria, but together their e-waste totals less than 1 million metric tons annually.

West Africans, who can purchase far fewer electronic items and television than wealthier Chinese or Americans, correspondingly have little to toss away. But Ghana and Nigeria, and West Africa more generally, has become the landing place of Chinese and American e-waste because there has been more resistance to such imports in Southern and Eastern Africa, and because the governments of West Africa have largely turned a blind eye to the human results of scavenging. Corruption may also have played a role, with exporters inducing West African authorities to ignore illicit dumping.

When Presidents Xi Jinping and Barack Obama visit Africa, or when African heads of state travel to Beijing and Washington, barring others’ electronic leftovers from their countries ought to be high on the agenda of the leaders of Africa. Mostly unrecognized as major problems until now – except at the very local level, where waste entrepreneurs are suffering – Africans ought to persuade both major powers to prohibit the export of e-waste, or at least attempt to match the recycling efforts of Europe and keep it out of Africa.

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