Nigeria's e-waste mountain
As demand for electronic equipment in Nigeria continues to rise, what happens to it at its end of life is increasingly coming under the microscope. Valentine Iwenwanne examines the problem of e-waste disposal and the potential solutions
Around the world, old computers and other electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) are creating scrap heaps of e-waste in massive sites full of hazardous components. It’s a growing problem affecting a number of developing nations where cheap electronic equipment can provide a lifeline for those living in poverty.
Although waste management is now a global business, more than half of the world’s population still have little option but to use landfills for the disposal of EEE once it becomes waste (WEEE). Up to 90 per cent of the world’s electronic waste, worth nearly $19 billion (£14.9 billion), is illegally traded or dumped each year, according to a report released by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
The entire continent of Africa currently produces only about 2.2 million tonnes (Mt) of electronic waste annually, as the United Nations’ 2017 Global E-Waste Monitor reveals – equivalent to 1.9 kilogrammes per inhabitant. In comparison, 44.7 Mt of e-waste were produced globally in 2016, with core materials valued at about €55 million (£49 million).
However, Africa is one of the world’s leading destinations for large-scale shipments of electronic wastes from the United States and Europe. In West Africa, Ghana and Nigeria are major recipients of this waste, but high volumes also go to Cote D’Ivoire and the Republic of the Congo. Nigeria is particularly burdened by WEEE, with over 1.1 million tonnes of e-waste every year stemming from both local and imported EEE.
The usability of the imported WEEE poses significant problems in Nigeria, with much of what is imported no longer being able to be reused, meaning it often ends up being dumped, exposing toxic elements to the environment.
Commenting on the issue of Nigeria’s e-waste, Nigeria’s Minister of State for the Environment Alhaji Ibrahim Jibril said: “E-waste is a real challenge and environmental hazard. There is a concerted effort by major players in the world to tackle it.
“In Nigeria, you can separate this e-waste into two: the brand-new ones that are imported into the country and are sold and used by all of us, and which ultimately come to the end of their shelf life and are discarded as waste, while the second category is the equipment imported into Nigeria as second-hand materials.”
In 2015, Nigeria saw 56,000 tonnes of imported e-waste; in 2017, this figure increased to 288,000 tonnes – more than four times higher than two years earlier. In 2012, half of the EEE imported into the country was second-hand.
Nigeria has a weak port regulation system, which paves the way for the illegal import of second-hand or refurbished electronics without any confirmatory testing to check if they are still usable. Many items are shipped in containers to the country as non-tested electronics concealed behind working goods, inside a car or falsely described as personal items.
This imported waste presents a wide network of economic opportunities for importers, for scavengers on landfills and for recyclers, despite the risks posed to human health by the materials when incorrectly disposed of. As a result, the illegal activity becomes more attractive – and more difficult to stop. Dr Leslie Adogame, Executive Director of Sustainable Research and Action for Environmental Development (SRADev) Nigeria, a non-governmental environmental health research organization, says: “E-waste is a venture with two sides. There seems to be some level of complacency. It has a lot of economic opportunities embedded in it; it has a whole pool of employment being generated. And at the same time, it comes with a lot of toxic materials that affect human health.”
Nigeria, like many other countries, became a party to the Basel Convention on 13 March 1991. This is a global treaty that provides regulations and guidelines for the use, management and transboundary movement of electronic wastes, particularly from developed to developing nations, and requires them to be handled accordingly in order to prevent damage to human health and the environment.
Twenty-eight years later, however, the flow of unregulated e-waste into Nigeria continues unabated. This is especially significant because Nigeria also signed the Bamako Convention in 1998, an agreement signed by African nations that was expressly intended to prohibit the import of any hazardous (including radioactive) waste into the continent, although it has yet to ratify it.
The country’s National Environmental Standard Regulatory and Enforcement Agency (NESREA) is making concerted efforts with the environmental arm of Interpol to curb the illegal transboundary circulation of e-waste, as well as to introduce a proper registration process for imported products. There are also plans for the creation of targeted recycling plants that would deal with the electronic waste and battery waste streams and ensure that they are effectively treated and disposed of, according to the Director General of the NESREA, Dr. Lawrence Anukam.
It is not always clear where the responsibility should lie for the clean up and proper disposal of WEEE, especially in a market where imports make up such a significant part of the material stream. However, the Nigerian Government has taken steps to shift the burden onto producers by announcing it would be implementing an Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) policy based on international guidance in 2016.
Every company placing products onto the market in Nigeria is required to comply with the policy framework. Compliance requires producers, including but not limited to brand owners, manufacturers, importers and distributors, to register with a Producer Responsibility Organization (PRO) through which a take-back or buy-back programme can be implemented to ensure that producers cover the costs of the environmental management of their products across their life cycle.
However, NESREA, a parastatal of the Federal Ministry of Environment, which is being charged with the implementation and enforcement of the EPR programme, has been slow in introducing it.
SRADev has stated that the existing capacity in NESREA to fully roll out the framework is not sufficient; the regulatory enforcement agency has no official presence in 10 out of 36 states across the country. As a result, EPR in Nigeria is still at the formulation stage, with progress remaining anaemic.
While government efforts to get a handle on Nigeria’s e-waste problem stall, some are taking it into their own hands to tackle the issue. Hinckley Recycling, an e-waste processing company that started out as a service centre for global IT firm Hewlett Packard, was licensed by the NESREA and the Lagos State Environmental Agency in 2017.
Based in Nigeria’s largest city and commercial centre, Lagos, Hinckley’s collection and recycling services are aimed at companies with obsolete or unwanted EEE. The organisation recovers redundant electronic items, securely destroying all confidential data, and manages the recycling of WEEE. Hinckley dismantles, processes, shreds and treats non-hazardous waste materials in its facility in Lagos – which has an annual processing capacity of around 30,000 tonnes per year – while hazardous waste that cannot be treated in its facility is dismantled and packaged for shipment to other recycling facilities outside Nigeria.
Hinckley runs a ‘collect and recycle’ service, collecting WEEE from businesses and residents in waste bins and sacks before transporting them to its facility in Lagos for safe disposal and recycling.
However, due to informal WEEE processing routes, where individuals can make money from dissembling and selling on components, and the reluctance of some Nigerians to put out their WEEE for collection with no financial compensation, there is still much more that needs to be done by the Nigerian Government to ensure responsible recycling of WEEE. Belinda Osarugue Osayamwen, Business Development Manager for Hinckley, says: “When you talk about e-waste, you need to talk about what is being done to the waste. Many Nigerians are not ready to give out their e-waste for proper collection and recycling because they are expecting financial value for their waste. This needs proper action from the Nigerian Government to remedy.”
Much work is still needed in order to ensure the responsible disposal of WEEE in Nigeria to prevent the harmful effects of its leakage into the environment. However, the availability of foreign export markets for refurbished electronic devices and the presence of a large pool of informal expertise and knowledge demonstrate the potential for a healthy and responsible WEEE recycling industry in the country. With stronger direction from the Nigerian Government and a harnessing of expertise by recycling companies such as Hinckley, WEEE can be kept out of the environment and turned into wealth that benefits everyone.