Developing World Is Our Toxic Techno Trash Dumpster

gpexportAustin Chronicle
Daniel Mottola

Each month, hundreds of shipments of electronic waste exported from the U.S. and Europe to developing countries for supposed reuse and repair are actually dumped and often burned in unregulated conditions, releasing an array of toxic contaminants and creating a potential environmental disaster, according to a report released last week by worldwide e-waste watchdog Basel Action Network, in conjunction with Austin’s Texas Campaign for the Environment.

In the port city of Lagos, Nigeria, investigators found computers with ID tags from the cities of Houston and San Antonio, among many other sources across the U.S. and Europe. The report and accompanying video, “The Digital Dump: Exporting High-Tech Re-use and Abuse to Africa,” alleges that U.S. recyclers sell or donate the equipment to developing countries as a way of skirting costly domestic recycling regulations. In Lagos, while there is a healthy market for repairing and refurbishing old computers, cell phones, televisions, and other electronic equipment, local experts say as much as 75% of the imports – roughly 400,000 computers or monitors each month – are not economically repairable and are being discarded and routinely burned, according to the report.

E-waste can contain an array of toxic materials, including lead, mercury, cadmium, barium, beryllium, and brominated flame retardants (similar to PCBs outlawed in the 1970s) – some of which become many times more hazardous when burned. More than 63 million computers in the United States will become obsolete in 2005, according to a New York Times report.

“Things are completely out of control,” said BAN investigation coordinator Jim Puckett.

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. It’s 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.”

Following the release of “The Digital Dump,” Hugh Miller, with the city of San Antonio Information Technology Department, told San Antonio Current he plans to change the city’s salvaging process so that its computer vendor will be responsible for taking back old computers.

Robin Schneider, Director of Texas Campaign for the Environment and national vice-chair of the Computer TakeBack Campaign, spearheaded successful efforts beginning in 2002 to influence local PC manufacturer Dell to institute producer responsibility programs, keeping their computers from being improperly disposed of. Now, both Dell and Hewlett-Packard have begun taking back obsolete products for safe recycling and disposal.

TCE estimates that computer manufacturers’ failure to take back obsolete products will cost Texas taxpayers $606 million in taxes over 10 years, $41 million in the Austin area alone. The solution, says TCE, are more comprehensive producer take-back initiatives, in which there is a built-in incentive to make electronics that are more recyclable, last longer, and use less toxic material. Advocates are now asking Apple to take back more than the discarded iPods they currently accept.

In 2002, BAN released a similar video and report called “Exporting Harm: The High Tech Trashing of Asia,” drawing attention to unsafe labor conditions and environmental contamination in China and other developing nations. Read the full report at

City dumping the way it retires old computers

africaewasteSan Antonio Express-News
Anton Caputo

The city of San Antonio doesn’t want any more of its old computers to end up in a Nigerian garbage dump. Or any dump, for that matter.

City officials, on the heels of a recent report that revealed one of their computers was among thousands getting dumped as garbage in Nigeria, plan to change the way they dispose of their old PCs to ensure that the machines are properly reused or recycled.

Hugh Miller, acting director of the city’s Information Technology Services, said the pending change is not a direct result of the report or its coverage in the San Antonio Express-News. But he did say the recent revelations “solidified the need to have it done.”

At issue is the fate of the roughly 8,000 computers the city cycles through every four years. Currently, the computers are auctioned 100 or so at a time to the highest bidder, Miller said.

This was the case with computer No. 821465, which was auctioned last November, only to end up as garbage in the Nigerian port city of Lagos.

“Once they are sold, it’s hard for us to keep full track of what that buyer does with them,” Miller said. “They probably sold another lot to Africa, and whoever was in that group went though and said, ‘We can probably use this, and we can use this. What do we do with the rest?'”

The rest is dumped in heaps around the African countryside and then burned or left to possibly seep dangerous chemicals such as lead and mercury, according to a report released earlier this month by the Basel Action Network.

This is a growing problem that is not likely to go away. Nearly 250 million computers in the U.S. will become obsolete in the next five years, according to the National Safety Council.

The average computer monitor contains 4 pounds of lead.

Most of the secondhand equipment is shipped to Africa to be reused, BAN found. But as much as 75 percent of the equipment is considered junk by those businesses in Nigeria that import it and ends up as discarded hulks.

Miller, who has been with the city five months, wants to eliminate the municipality’s contribution to the problem.

He wants to work out a deal with the computer manufacturer to properly dispose of the machines after their working life with the city is over. He’s also considering first offering them for sale to city employees.

The plan will be instituted through a request for proposals put out to computer manufacturers or through a state contract, but Miller said the details likely wouldn’t be worked out until after the first of the year.

Robin Schneider of the Texas Campaign for the Environment applauds the move. She said Dell, which supplies most of the city’s computers, has several programs that could work. A Dell representative did not return calls Tuesday.

“What we found oftentimes is the people who do the purchasing don’t necessarily talk to the people who do the end-of-life handling, and we need to close that loop,” Schneider said. “San Antonio will be in good company.”