A recycling fraud

When you take your electronic goods to a recycler, you may think you have done some good. But where does your waste actually end up? Simon Wilson reports.

Does e-waste' always get recycled?

No. In 2009, Greenpeace ran a fascinating experiment (with the help of Sky News and The Independent), placing a satellite-tracking device in a dead television and leaving it at a recycling centre in Basingstoke, run by Hampshire County Council. It was then bought by a London-based dealer, one of dozens buying up a big proportion of the estimated 940,000 tonnes of domestic electronic waste (e-waste') produced in the UK each year. The television was then sent on a 4,500-mile journey from Tilbury docks to the giant Alaba electronics market in Lagos, where up to 15 shipping containers of discarded electronics from Europe and Asia arrive every day. According to the newspaper's investigators, who travelled there to buy back the TV, at least a third of the contents of each container is broken beyond use and transferred to dumps where waste pickers scavenge amid a cocktail of burning heavy metals and dioxins.

How big a problem is this?

The nature of the issue means that firms and nations are eager to hide, confuse and obfuscate. So accurate numbers can be hard to come by. Nonetheless, the United Nations (UN) estimates that worldwide about 50 million tonnes of defunct electrical and electronic goods are thrown away each year the bulk of them ending up in landfill in developed countries. Within the EU, electronic equipment is supposed to be recycled by licensed companies at home, but according to figures from Consumers International, a pressure group, around 6.6 million tonnes of it leave the EU illegally every year.

Why are things like televisions toxic'?

Electronic equipment includes components that contain toxic substances, which are particularly dangerous given the primitive conditions in which they are usually broken down. Old-style cathode ray tube monitors contain substantial amounts of lead; flat screens contain mercury; integrated circuit boards use arsenic, and lots of electronic gadgets have traces of selenium, cadmium, beryllium and phthalates (plasticisers). Recyclers can make money from selling scavenged metal from electronic equipment, but retrieving usable metals is itself extremely dangerous. Workers many of them women and children remove the metals in the most basic conditions, with no protective equipment. High levels of toxic chemicals are then released into the atmosphere.

Subscribe to MoneyWeek

Subscribe to MoneyWeek today and get your first six magazine issues absolutely FREE

Get 6 issues free

Sign up to Money Morning

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Sign up

Where does it end up?

Much of it lands in west Africa and China. An investigation by The Mail on Sunday found NHS computers being broken up and burnt by children working as scavengers on Ghanaian rubbish dumps. The waste pickers were trying to extract copper and aluminium by burning off the plastics, with the result that they were inhaling lead, cadmium, dioxins, furans and brominated flame retardants. Tests in another of the world's big fly tips Guiyu in China show that 80% of the children of that city have dangerous levels of lead in their blood. And the countries where the processing takes place others include India, Pakistan and the Philippines have lax regulations or none at all to protect workers or prevent the primitive smelting operations.

Isn't exporting waste illegal?

Not everywhere. The US, for example, relies on voluntary codes and state-level targets, and so the situation is even worse. "The dirty little secret is that when you take [electronic waste] to a recycler, instead of throwing it in a rubbish bin, about 80% of that material, very quickly, finds itself on a container ship going to a country like China, Nigeria, India, Vietnam, Pakistan where very dirty things happen to it," says Jim Puckett, the executive director of the Basel Action Network a Seattle-based campaign group focused on persuading the US electronics industry to tackle the issue. Meanwhile, the UN is trying to forge an international solution.

What solution are they seeking?

A UN environmental conference in Cartagena, Colombia, attended by governmental delegations from more than 170 countries, has reached agreement on accelerating the global ban on the export of hazardous waste across national boundaries. The 1992 Basel Convention (on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal), prohibits the EU or OECD nations from dumping hazardous waste in developing countries. Under the new amendment, which now needs to be ratified by a further 17 countries in addition to the 50 that have already done so, there will be an outright legal ban on exports of all forms of hazardous waste, including obsolete electronic goods sent for recycling. This latest UN move is potentially a big step forward; but much depends on the attitude of the biggest exporter of waste, America. And so far it is still not playing ball.

A high-profile scandel

One of the most high-profile scandals involving the export of toxic waste surrounded the Dutch commodities-trading company Trafigura Beheer BV in 2006. Emails obtained by the BBC's Newsnight and The Guardian sent by Trafigura traders showed that they knew the oil slops the company sent to the Ivory Coast were contaminated with toxic waste. What they claimed they didn't know was that the Ivorian contractor they employed to pump out the hold of its tanker planned to dump the waste in inhabited areas of the main city, Abidjan. The toxic waste killed 15 people and made tens of thousands more ill; Trafigura was ultimately obliged to pay compensation to 31,000 people.

Simon Wilson’s first career was in book publishing, as an economics editor at Routledge, and as a publisher of non-fiction at Random House, specialising in popular business and management books. While there, he published Customers.com, a bestselling classic of the early days of e-commerce, and The Money or Your Life: Reuniting Work and Joy, an inspirational book that helped inspire its publisher towards a post-corporate, portfolio life.   

Since 2001, he has been a writer for MoneyWeek, a financial copywriter, and a long-time contributing editor at The Week. Simon also works as an actor and corporate trainer; current and past clients include investment banks, the Bank of England, the UK government, several Magic Circle law firms and all of the Big Four accountancy firms. He has a degree in languages (German and Spanish) and social and political sciences from the University of Cambridge.