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The Ethics of Computer Recycling



Electronic waste is one of the fastest growing waste streams in the developed world with 50 million tonnes being generated globally in 2013 alone. In the EU, some 8 million tonnes of WEEE are produced WEEE produced in each country each yearannually. However, only 40% of that waste is ever recycled and given regulations in place, it is clear that a significant proportion is not accounted for. The Environment Agency (England & Wales) estimates that up to 1.3 million tonnes of waste electronics and electrical equipment leaves the EU each year, ending up in West Africa and Asia.

Regulating the System:


Opening Gambit:


In the late Nineties, there was a spurt of Media interest in the small shanty industries throughout Africa, building bicycles out of recycled parts. Similar industries existed with the sole purpose of providing reconditioned parts for vehicles, white goods, televisions, hifi’s and video recorders/ players. Basically any mechanical device could be fixed with what in effect boiled down to recycled components. No-one really asked where those components came from in the first place.


Increased Regulation:


Environmental awareness in the first decade of this century resulted in numerous changes to regulation as a whole. Regulations banned the use of CFCs an HCFCs, which were found to be harming the Ozone layer, the hazardous waste regulations were introduced in the EU and many hazardous wastes, including electronics were banned from Landfill, thereby preventing contamination of groundwater and land (see also: What Waste Electronics/ Electrical items are Hazardous?).

waste in landfill contaminates groundwater


In 2008, the EU further imposed the Integrated Pollution Prevention Control "IPPC" permitting system, forming a devolved waste management system, with each waste stream governed by a specialist waste management permit. These regulations which required recovery of hazardous wastes brought with them added costs, that business and economies as a whole had to fund.

Through the Back Door, getting around Regulation:




Back in 2002, the BBC, along with a number of other Ethically orientated media services highlighted the plight of numerous inhabitants living in shanty towns throughout China and India. With the west producing a projected 300,000 tonnes of Computer waste per year, much of it was being shipped via container to developing countries for processing.


The result was a mountain of computer waste, literally piled up on the doorsteps of these residents, who where then tasked with melting down the waste for metals. Without the recycling centres available within Britain and other western countries, those employed in these countries were left with no option than to process the waste by hand, exposing themselves to PCBs, heavy metals and Arsenic (to name but a few of the toxins).


Highlighting the plight of those involved in this underpaid trade did bring it to the attention of the West, but amazingly, much of it had arrived from Europe. With Europe’s countries depositing computer waste in Landfill the EU developed and implemented the WEEE directive, with a view to placing the responsibility of recycling firmly upon the shoulders of the manufacturers. The UK implemented this regulation in 2006 and, just like the rest of Europe, it had the desired effect- separating the waste from Landfill- but it also caused an explosion in the volumes of e-waste being exported.

Why did Exports Increase?


Cost reductions were recognised as an opportunity by many Recycling Companies, with the ability to sell waste on, untreated to exporters as a means to circumvent regulation and reduce overheads. Export opportunities, coupled with a ready market at home, allowed exporters to load containers full of waste electronics, happy in the knowledge that they had a buyer lined up for the waste and an agreed price for the electronics. No-one seemed to care about the financial or environmental cost to the country of destination.burning e-waste in ghana

The Historic Flow of e-Waste/ WEEE


Pakistan (2005-2009)


Recognising the financial burden and risks to it’s population, Pakistan imposed a 25% tax levy upon Computer Monitors being imported into the country. The result was felt overnight, with the entire import industry grinding to a halt. Overnight the flow of e-waste around the world switched, with exporters/ importers focusing on Africa and China.


China (2007-2013)


roadside dump in lagos, NigeriaThe flow of electronic waste into China soon became a massive burden. Much of the waste was being exported under the guise of second hand equipment and yet, of the proportion entering the country, only a fraction was re-useable. The remainder was simply waste. The exporters knew this, as did the importers- it was simply a way of circumventing regulation. Cost margins, after purchasing the waste itself were kept low through the cost of labour in China and the recycling companies in the West could reduce overheads by simply becoming a middle-man. The result was fierce competition among recycling companies and the fees they charged to "recycle" the waste. In the mean time, parts of China were fast becoming waste lands, with severe pollution and groundwater contamination. China closed it’s borders to all waste imports in 2012, imposing the "Green Fence" policy. Internally, they introduced sweeping changes, introduced a Permit system and increased policing of everything entering their Ports.


Africa (Ghana, Nigeria, 2007-2014)


groundwater pollution from weee e-wasteThe flow of e-Waste subsequently focused entirely on Africa, with the vast majority of the world’s waste being deposited in countries throughout the Continent, again in the Guise of Working Equipment. Even if it was working, the age of the equipment meant that it couldn’t be put to use in a suitable way and the majority ended up being dumped, burned or stripped of metals. The importers of the waste purchased it from recycling companies in and were able to make a profit, selling it by the container load to unwitting customers in Africa’s various nations, whilst the recipients earned pennies each day, scavenging through the waste electronics, looking for metals they could sell.


Like other countries before it, the African Sub Continent reacted, with amendment to the Bamako Convention. In 2013, the importing of all second hand electronic equipment was banned in 12 countries in Africa. The strategic location of these countries had an immediate effect on the global trade in waste electronics.



As with previous recipients throughout this historic journey, one thing has become crystal clear. Infrastructure remains the key hurdle to successful recycling. Developed countries must be apportioned significant blame for allowing Waste exports of this magnitude to carry on unchecked and its clear that the financial burden of this ecological disaster has fallen fairly and squarely on the shoulders of nations that lack the technical knowledge or financial capital to repair the damage caused.


The Basel Convention, which should offer a means to seek re numeration and assistance for developing countries in such instances has had little or no effect. The wastes listed in the Annex of Banned wastes has of course not been altered to reflect this more recent trade.


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