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Toxic tech threatening developing world

Manufacturers have been savaged for dumping used PCs in the developing world; some say governments must take action

Used computer equipment exported from the US and Europe is causing serious health and environmental damage in Africa, according to a report published this week.

Trade watchdog the Basel Action Network (BAN) revealed in the study that the global trade in toxic discarded computers has escalated. Huge numbers of exported obsolete computers and other used electronic equipment from the US and Europe are being dumped and burned near residences in empty lots, roadsides and swamps, creating serious health and environmental contamination.

The report, entitled The Digital Dump: Exporting High-Tech Re-use and Abuse to Africa, also claimed that US and European manufacturers are dumping computers and other electrical goods under the guise of recycling or charity donations.

The Nigerian Computer Dealers Business Association (CAPDAN) said as much as 75 percent of the imported used computer equipment is junk. Local experts on the trade told BAN that 500 containers of used computer scrap of various condition and ages enter the country each month. Each container is said to contain about 800 computers or monitors.

Nigeria is just one example of what is happening every day in the ports of developing countries worldwide but particularly in Africa, the report said.

Jim Puckett, the BAN coordinator who led the field investigation, said that his aim was not to condemn those who genuinely sought to recycle kit but to weed out the charlatans.

"Re-use is a good thing, bridging the digital divide is a good thing, but exporting loads of techno-trash in the name of these lofty ideals... Seriously damaging the environment and health of poor communities in developing countries is criminal," he said.

Due to a lack of financial resources, much of the growth in the IT sectors of developing countries such as Nigeria has been fuelled by the importing of used equipment from more developed countries. As a result many brokers and businesses have sprung up to channel used equipment, explained Puckett.

"Things are completely out of control. Manufacturers have got to get toxic chemicals out of electronic goods, governments have got to start enforcing international law and we consumers have got to be a lot more careful about what our local recycler is really doing. Its time we all get serious about what is now a tsunami of toxic techno-trash making its way from rich to poorer countries and start taking some responsibility," Puckett added.

The EC Directive on Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) puts the responsibility for waste disposal on manufacturers. However, the UK will not now introduce this until June 2006 after it was delayed again over the summer.

In response to this directive, HP has developed a free recycling service for its customers who can return their IT hardware to a designated collection point to be treated.

"By offering the one-stop service for free, HP is making it easy for businesses to use. Unlike the previous recycling programme, there are no calculations or negotiations regarding the volume and type of products being returned," said Kirstie McIntyre, WEEE programme manager, in a statement.

Toxic computer waste is not just causing problems in Africa but all over the world. Environmental campaigners, Greenpeace recently condemned IT manufacturers for endangering the health of workers employed in breaking down old kit in China and India.

Computer Aid, a charity that ships used PCs to the developing world, believes that politicians in these countries need to do more to protect their citizens.

"The problem cannot be solved at a local level as there is no legislation in place," Tony Roberts, executive director of Computer Aid, told ZDNet UK. Computer Aid runs a project called BridgeTheDigitalDivide.com in conjunction with CNET Networks, publishers of ZDNet UK.

"The disposal of monitors is more problematic there is no plant anywhere in Africa that can break down computers. The government [in the exported countries] has to make legislation to force people to decommission monitors, there has to be some financial incentive. Until this happens the problem will go on," Roberts warned.