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The Truth About E-Waste: What Really Happens to Electronic Waste After Westerners Dump it in Africa

Truth About E-Waste- What Really Happens to Electronic Waste After Westerners Dump it in Africa
Nnaemeka Ugochukwu

Editor’s note: This article is the second in a series of articles devoted to the subject of e-waste. We recommend you read the first article, “The Problem with E-Waste: How the Rich, Industrialised Nations Deal with E-Junk“.

Abuja, Nigeria: In 2013, at the height of Blackberry craze, I got my Blackberry phone. It was a Blackberry Thor. To be able to afford it, I had to sell my Nokia phone. Then I convinced my older sister to make up the rest of the money for me. The price of the phone was 25,000 Nigerian Naira, which is roughly $80 in today’s USD currency. I then gave the money to a friend who sent it to his sister who was based in Lagos, Nigeria. After a two-week wait, the phone finally arrived. I was elated.

This elation though was short-lived. The phone had faults from the very first day, it would go off and take literally hours to come on and there wasn’t much I could do about it. I could not return it to the sellers because I didn’t know them; and even if I did, there was no warranty. The phone was not bought from a licensed store; it did not come in a box. You see, what I had bought was a second-hand phone, “London Used” as it is known here. I had bought something someone had probably thrown away in Europe or America. I had bought someone’s waste, e-waste.

The Truth About E-Waste: What Really Happens to Electronic Waste After Westerners Dump it in Africa

Used phones. Credit: shutterstock.com

When the American user drops off his e-waste at a recycling collection shop, he or she believes that its journey has ended; that the device has exhausted its lifespan. The reality is the polar opposite. According to a 2017 report by Environmental Justice Atlas, an estimated 500 shipping containers carrying about 500,000 second-hand computers and electronic related equipment arrive in Nigeria every month. Forty-five percent of these goods come from the US and another 45 percent from Europe. The waste is brought in as part of the used goods market in Nigeria known as Tokunbo. Even though many governments in Africa have banned the importation of used electronic goods, at the end of the day there’s not much they can do to stop the inflow and have to settle for economic sanctions. So, our governments frown at them, threaten penalties, but really can’t do much about it. Up to 75 percent of the devices that land in Africa is obsolete and unserviceable. In other words, they cannot be reused.

Despite what the original American owner may have thought when they threw it out, the electronic gadget is not waste. These “unserviceable” gadgets are taken to a dump site outside of the main cities. Here, they are classified into two categories; the unsalvageable and the salvageable. 

The unsalvageable gadgets are picked apart and further broken down to obtain hidden parts. This is done by a literal army of 500-1500 scavengers who make their living from the dump site. These workers are undocumented, unsupervised and unprotected. They do not wear any gloves or face masks or any other forms of protective clothing. They mostly come from nearby communities. Even though they are well aware of the hazardous nature of the work, they bear no mind much because there’s nothing much they can do about it.

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The more salvageable ones are taken for refurbishing and reselling. They are taken to “Computer Villages” and refurbished with new cases and screens. These products are sold in shops, open-air markets and even online.

The Truth About E-Waste: What Really Happens to Electronic Waste After Westerners Dump it in Africa

An electronics shop specializing in used goods in Tanzania. Credit: shutterstock.com

From here, the electronics begin a new life as the treasured property of a new owner or perhaps member of a new family in the case of television sets. Growing up in the 90s, colored television came in the form of a twenty-eight inch Schneider. 

Explaining the demand for used electronics

There are two main reasons for this huge demand for used products. The first is that they are more affordable. This is especially true for mobile phones as a brand-new iPhone is usually up to a thousand dollars. If the cost seems a little dear for those who live in developed countries, it is truly cost-prohibitive here where most Nigerians earn about $3-5 per day. On the other hand, a UK-used iPhone may go as low as a third of that price.

The second reason is quality. Oftentimes, the quality and standards of gadgets manufactured for sale in the West is far higher than the ones made for African markets. There is a prevailing belief that a device used and thrown away in the UK or the US is better than a brand new Chinese version found in the markets here.

Once the used electronic item has resided with a number of owners, in various homes for some number of years, then it may, at last, be thrown away. To arrive at this point, the gadget must be totally beyond redemption, coupled with the fact that the final owner has the funds to afford something better.

Only at this point, does it become waste. Only at this point do we come face to face with the “e-waste crisis”.

As life gets better and income increases, this lifecycle has gotten increasingly shorter. New and cheaper products have entered the market. A brand new Tecno phone (Tecno for those of you who are not familiar, is a Chinese mobile phone manufacturer which focusses its business on the African market) is a quarter of the price of an Apple iPhone but still offers pretty much the smart features. Between my 2013 Blackberry experience to the present, I have used about four other mobile phones. The chances that I would have to buy a used phone to enjoy the benefits of a smartphone are greatly reduced. The introduction of cheaper, brand new smartphones in the marketplace means that broken e-gadgets are increasingly and easily thrown away now. They begin their ‘final’ journey much sooner.

What Really Happens to Electronic Waste After Westerners Dump it in Africa

So what happens to them? Broken gadgets that are beyond repair are picked up by scrap scavengers. These scavengers move from street to street, shouting (yes, shouting) for people to bring out their condemned devices and car parts. For this article, I spoke with a scavenger named Sabiu to get an idea of where the gadgets go.

Here’s what I learned: The scavengers take their electronic finds to the scrapyards, often empty expanses of land at the fringes of the city or town. They are not officially designated as scrapyards and therefore are not subject to any monitoring or inspections. Here, the devices are dismantled and broken down to harvest the plastic, copper and other components. Once again, no gloves, masks or any other form of protective gear is used to shield them from exposure to toxic chemicals. When I ask Sabiu whether he knows that it could be hazardous to his health, he responds with a hearty laugh and the interpreter tells me, “Wetin e wan do us?” (What can it do to us?) he asks in halting pidgin.

After sorting the various metals and plastics, they are sold in tons to middlemen who transport it onwards to recycling plants in Lagos and Port-Harcourt. From there they will likely end up with metal and materials traders.

Back to my Blackberry story. I can’t quite remember what happened to it. I think I abandoned it at the repairer’s shop. I have not given it a single thought until now. There are millions of such devices thrown away indiscriminately. This has all the makings of an e-waste crisis. Unfortunately, most Nigerians do not know that and when they know, they really cannot do much about it. The West will keep dumping their waste here and the Sabius of our world cannot complain. One man’s waste it would seem, is Sabiu’s Gold.

Title image courtesy of shutterstock.com.

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About the author

Nnaemeka Ugochukwu

Nnaemeka Ugochukwu

Nnaemeka Ugochukwu is a Nigeria-based lawyer, writer and business innovation specialist. He is passionate about startups, fashion, equality and information sharing. He believes it is everyone's duty to make conscious decisions to create a better world. You can connect with him on Twitter @IamtheEmeka

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