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Africa's electronic waste problem

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Used -- and sometimes broken -- electronics imported into Africa from Europe can't be disposed of properly. Is the continent an e-waste dumping ground?

Safe and sustainable handling of electronic waste, to both salvage reusable materials and dispose of dangerous ones, is a growing problem worldwide. The Independent recently reported that Britons alone throw away 17 million devices each year, a value of around £762 million, and much of it ends up in landfills.

However, even better intentioned disposal — particularly resale and donation — doesn’t necessarily result in a healthier resting place for electronics. According to a report released by the United Nations this week (PDF), 30% of used electronics imported into five African countries — Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Liberia, and Nigeria — are already broken, and thus should have been classified as e-waste in the first place.

Around 70% of all of imports into those countries are used electronics and, with domestic electronics included, produce nearly one million tons of e-waste each year in just those five countries.

If these countries had the proper infrastructure to recycle electronics sustainably and safely, this wouldn’t be such a big problem. (Beyond the basic ethical considerations of dumping electronic trash into Africa.) But most developed nations don’t even have efficient electronic recycling, much less in developing countries.

“The collection and recycling of e-waste is almost exclusively carried out by non-registered individuals widely referred to as ‘scavengers’” in the studied countries, says the report.

The impacts of such practices are multi-fold. There is economic loss, because rare metals that could be salvaged are often abandoned. There are environmental impacts, as toxic metals such as lead and cadmium leach into soil. And those chemicals in the environment could lead to multifold health problems, beyond the basic dangers of handling and disposing of electronic parts.

Photo: Flickr/Curtis Palmer

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Hannah Waters

Weekend Editor

Weekend Editor Hannah Waters is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. She writes a blog on the Scientific American network, and has written for Nature Medicine and The Scientist. She holds Biology and Latin degrees from Carleton College. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure