More than recycling
Brian Taylor March 3, 2015
The electronic scrap recycling sector in West Africa includes a wide variety of refurbishment and reuse techniques.
In the English speaking world, the “three Rs” waste reduction hierarchy of “reduce, reuse and recycle” has long been touted as a resource conservation path to follow.
Entrepreneurs in developing nations who refurbish and remarket computers and mobile phones can point to their reuse business model as falling squarely within this hierarchy. In many cases they are importing computers, phones and other equipment considered obsolete in OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) nations into places like West Africa and preparing them for sale to people who cannot afford new devices.
However, the business model of these entrepreneurs is not universally praised. Organizations such as the Basel Action Network (BAN), based in the United States, says the containers being shipped into nations such as Nigeria, Burkina Faso or Ghana are essentially “waste” (even hazardous waste, considering the amounts of lead or heavy metals that may be included), and as such their transboundary shipment violates international conventions on waste handling between OECD and non-OECD countries.
The conflicting points of view remain a source of contention within the recycling world, as BAN and like-minded organisations press for legal action to curb the practice while importers in places such as Ghana seek help and understanding within OECD nations to have their voices heard.
Fulfilling a need
Emmanuel E.P Nyaletey is a 30-year-old software engineering student who was born in Ghana and currently lives near Atlanta in the U.S. He says the technicians who import and repair electronic items from Europe and North America play a vital role in the spread of information technology in West Africa.
“In a country where most households make less than $2,000 per year, a $500 brand new computer or cell phone or TV is a luxury most people can only dream of,” says Nyaletey. “The benefit of used electronics touches every aspect of our lives in Ghana, and I do not see how my country can develop and be competitive in the region and around the world without these gadgets,” he comments.
There are manufacturers making low-cost consumer electronics for the West African market, but Nyaletey says many of those have not earned a good reputation. “New electronics made for the African market from China are usually cheaply made and do not last,” he says. “When I visit Ghana, my friends prefer to exchange my personal (used) cell phone that I bought in the U.S. for a new one I may have bought from a Chinese store for them,” he adds.
Refurbished goods are also sought out by the education sector in Ghana, says Nyaletey. “Most schools and other organisations receive used electronics as donations because they can’t afford to buy new computers. Without these donations, many schools are not able to teach simple computer skills or access the Internet,” he remarks.
Computer and mobile phone repair technicians have become both widespread and respected in his native Ghana, according to Nyaletey. “Many young men and women are employed [by the sector] because they can repair electronics,” he comments. “So many families I personally know have worked hard as repair technicians to improve their living standards and to send their kids to school. The repair technician is one of the highly respected jobs in Ghana, and it’s a lucrative job too, as almost every household has used electronics that need fixing once in a while.”
Nyaletey states unequivocally, “Used electronics make our lives in Ghana better and help us connect to the rest of the world.”
Opponents of the transboundary shipment of used electronics, however, see flaws in this business model that can involve health, safety and the final disposition of items that may contain lead or potentially toxic heavy metals.
Since releasing its documentary “Exporting Harm” in 2001, BAN has continued to seek government and private sector action against unsafe and environmentally unsound electronics recycling practices.
“Exporting Harm,” which focused in part on unsafe dismantling operations in Guiyu, China, brought attention to unseemly recycling practices and helped lead to the creation of several environmental, health and safety (EHS) certification programs for electronics recyclers (including one operated by BAN itself).
Much of the initial attention focused on the unsafe dismantling of cathode ray tube (CRT) monitors, which are high in lead content. (See the feature “Monitoring the Situation” in the November/December 2014 issue of Recycling Today Global Edition.)
Although CRTs continue to make up part of the electronic scrap stream, it is a form of technology that is largely being replaced by liquid crystal displays (LCDs) and other types of display screens. That is seemingly welcome news for those concerned about the safety and health aspects of transboundary electronics shipments.
The technology shift has not seemed to change BAN’s stance on the international shipping of used electronics. The group’s most recent documentary, “E-Waste Tragedy,” portrays the status of end-of-life products such as mobile phones in Hong Kong or washing machines in Spain and considers these part of the cross-border trade best halted
While “E-Waste Tragedy” revisits Guiyu, the film also includes several segments focusing on West Africa and its role as a destination for used electronics, particularly from nearby Europe.
The film refers to repair operations and the sale of used goods, but also portrays stockpiles of obsolete electronics and implies that these are unrepairable and unwanted items that have been abandoned by the people who brought them into the country.
At the Electronics Recycling Asia conference held in Singapore in November of 2014, Jim Puckett of BAN screened the documentary “E-Waste Tragedy” and also delivered a presentation. “This is a global problem,” Puckett remarked to delegates.
Puckett urged governments around the world to enforce the transboundary export regulations contained in the Basel Convention and for the consumer electronics industry to design products without toxic substances. Another BAN goal is to “transform and eliminate the informal sector,” a reference to what the group considers the unregulated and often unsafe dismantling of electronic products that most often takes place in the developing world.
The need for affordable electronics to bring an IT infrastructure to nations such as Ghana and the necessity to protect the environment have led to conflicting points of view not only in West Africa but also in nations that trade with the region.
Keeping the door open
Robin Ingenthron of U.S.-based American Retroworks Inc. and Goodpoint Recycling became aware of the global used and repaired electronics market in large part from serving customers in Mexico and establishing Retroworks de Mexico.
Subsequently, Ingenthron has helped create an organization called Fair Trade Recycling (www.wr3a.org, formerly the WR3A), which advocates keeping repair and reuse markets in place in developing nations, including those in West Africa.
Ingenthron says he firmly believes the role of used electronics in West Africa as portrayed by Nyaletey is accurate and that restricting the practice will cause more harm than good.
Unfortunately, punishment has become a reality for one West African importer. Joe Benson, a United Kingdom resident born in Nigeria faced investigation and prosecution in the U.K. for more than five years before pleading guilty in 2014 to illegal transboundary shipments of “e-waste.” (See the sidebar “Questionable conviction?” above.)
Ingenthron is skeptical of the U.K. court’s reliance on activist group portrayals of wholesale e-scrap dumping, saying, “No one should be in prison based on Basel Action Network films or statistics.” He acknowledges there remain issues in the region regarding the disposal of electronic items that are no longer wanted. “The worst practice is burning wire,” he comments.
However, the lack of a proper solid waste or scrap recycling infrastructure cannot be used to condemn second-hand goods only, says Ingenthron. “The social cost of refusing mass communication devices that bring the Internet and television to people until or unless a nation has an infrastructure in place is well documented by groups such as UNCTAD (the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development),” says Ingenthron. “Even BAN dismisses the argument against export for reuse based on eventual discard, since even brand new product cannot pass that test.”
Ingenthron says the reuse sector has suffered from an image that it dumps “e-waste” into West Africa. However, with the help in part from two recent industry studies (as well as the perceived injustice of the Benson case), he says 2015 may be the year when the sector improves its public perception.