The dirty business of e-waste

The plight of e-waste scavengers has been well documented, but not well tackled. All that is set to change –
in Nigeria at least – as British academics have initiated a project to educate the workers. Emma Rose reports

The dangers of toxic electronic waste (e-waste) are not to be taken lightly. Consisting of obsolete and unserviceable electronic equipment that leaks chemicals and noxious substances, it is alarmingly hazardous to both the environment and to people. Dismantling e-waste can cause severe damage to the human body. Heavy metals such as lead can be released into the environment, excessive exposure to which can result in damage to the brain, kidneys, nervous system and red blood cells. Growing children are particularly susceptible and may suffer critical changes in mental and physical development. Most electrical and electronic equipment contains polyvinyl chlorides (PVCs) and brominated flame retardants (BFRs), both of which contain hazardous chemicals.

And yet hundreds of people in Nigeria (and indeed other parts of the developing world) are risking their lives to extract precious metals from e-waste. Scavengers typically reach metal components by burning through the waste – which releases carcinogenic substances – subjecting themselves to multiple hazards, all for an average of two US dollars day.

This dangerous trade is proliferating because vast amounts of e-waste are accumulating in Nigeria; an estimated 400,000 secondhand computers are dumped there each month, most of which have not been tested for functionality and are beyond repair. Ostensibly, many are shipped to the country for reuse, but, as Jim Puckett of environmental NGO the Basel Action Network states: “What we’ve observed is not bridging the digital divide but the creation of a digital dump.” Despite existing legislation that should prohibit the dumping of old PCs, Nigeria’s prolific secondhand computer industry offers plenty of opportunity for computers to be sent in.

The dirty business of e-wasteFortunately, a new project is underway that aims to address the dangers of working with e-waste. Academics from the University of Northampton have been undertaking crucial work to educate e-waste scavengers about their trade and to provide them with indispensible safety apparatus that may save their lives. 

Dr Margaret Bates, Reader in Sustainable Waste Management, who runs the project, says: “Nigeria is fast becoming a digital dump for electronic wastes from Europe and the USA. E-scavengers are literally killing themselves to get to the ‘usable’ bits from the e-waste.

“The university received funding from the UK Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) via the British Council for a two-year project with our partner university in Nigeria, Ibadan, to educate the informal sector about how to break down the waste safely, how to identify what is of value and to provide them with the equipment to do this.”

Working with colleagues across the university, Dr Bates has organised workshops in Nigeria that are delivered to e-waste scavengers as well as delegates from NESREA (National Environmental Standards & Regulation Enforcement Agency).