British e-waste still being dumped in Africa

Cathode-ray tubes and other electronic waste is being illegally exported to Ghana and Nigeria from local council dumps, an investigation by the Environmental Investigation Agency has found

Electronic waste from the UK is continuing to be dumped in Ghana and Nigeria in contravention of environmental regulations, according to an NGO.

E-waste EIA

The Environmental Investigation Agency has said that electronic waste is still being dumped in Africa in contravention of regulations. Photo credit: Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA)

British companies are taking advantage of lax auditing procedures to illegally export end-of-life technology to West Africa, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) said in a report released on Monday.

"Industry intelligence suggests the diversion of e-waste from local-authority sites to the black market is widespread. EIA's investigation using trackers confirms this," the campaign group said in its report System Failure: The UK's harmful trade in electronic waste (PDF).

Unwanted devices should be sent to local council recycling centres or collected by electronic retailers for treatment by a registered facility, according to the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive, adopted in 2007. However, over the years investigations have found that e-waste is finding its way to scrapyards overseas via illegal exporters, and Greenpeace reported in 2008 that the historical destination for such waste had shifted from Asia to West Africa.

Starting in 2009, the EIA spent 18 months on an undercover investigation into the trade in waste cathode-ray tubes (CRTs) and found the hardware being shipped in contravention of WEEE.

As part of the investigation, EIA hid trackers inside deliberately disabled TVs and left them at six council recycling sites in London. Several weeks later, one of the sets turned up in Ghana, and the other in Nigeria, according to the group.

Lack of stringency

To get around customs checks, the discarded electronics were misleadingly labelled as "personal effects" or "used household goods" on shipping documents, it added. The group found a lack of stringency at several levels, including government institutions such as the Ministry of Defence.

There are many players at many levels who are involved and a lot of passing the buck.

– Fin Walravens, EIA

"There are many players at many levels who are involved and a lot of passing the buck," EIA global environment campaign leader Fin Walravens told ZDNet UK.

The company that co-ordinates electronic waste collection at the sites, Environmental Waste Controls (EWC), said on Monday that it had started an inquiry into the EIA allegations.

"In the report, EIA highlights an investigation that has discovered that waste electronic equipment deposited at a designated collection facility managed by our company, has been exported by a third party to countries in West Africa in contravention of the Waste Electrical and Electronic (WEEE) Resources Regulations 2006," said EWC. "This is unacceptable and EWC has put in place measures to prevent a reoccurrence of this practice and to undertake a full investigation in co-operation with the regulator and relevant authorities."

One of the companies named in the report told ZDNet UK on Tuesday that it was considering legal action against EIA. Another of the companies named had not responded to a request for comment at the time of writing.

The EIA is calling on the government to revamp the Producer Compliance Scheme part of WEEE and to boost its work in combating the illegal export of e-waste. While the UK Environment Agency has a team dedicated to countering the dumping, the EIA said that this work has been scaled back recently.

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