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Activists slam Europe for dumping on Africa

April 1, 2022

Activists in Africa are concerned about how fast the continent has become a dumpsite for Europe — for everything from electronic waste to used clothing. It's a toxic nuisance that poses a huge environmental threat.

Three men and a child on the back of a garbage truck at the Mbeubeuss rubbish dump in Dakar, Senegal
Environmental activists say EU countries should deal with their toxic waste at home rather than flooding Africa with itImage: John Wessels/AFP/Getty Images

David Kumordzi is a composer and musician based in Ghana's capital Accra. He spends a lot of his time mobilizing people to clean up his country's beaches.

The waste Kumordzi and his team collect includes plastics and discarded clothing.

"Most of the waste is coming from Europe because we are connected to the Atlantic Ocean. Most of the waste we are seeing around our beaches is not from Ghana," he told DW from Accra.

He blamed Europe for the tons of waste constantly being washed ashore.

Environmental activists in Africa have for years raised concerns about how fast the continent is becoming a dumpsite for Europe.

More rags than riches

The continent receives an almost continuous stream of incoming containers filled with discarded items — from electronic waste to used clothing. It's not just a nuisance, it also poses a threat to both human health and the environment. 

West Africa's hub for used clothing from abroad is Accra's Kantamanto Market.

Piles of imported clothes are sorted by traders looking for quality items but there are usually more rags than riches.

Every week, about 15 million individual items of used clothing arrive in Ghana, according to the Or Foundation, a human rights and environmental NGO from the United States.

Old clothes from Europe

Forty percent of these items end up discarded due to their poor quality. They find their way to landfills from where they are often washed into the ocean. 

Liz Ricketts, the co-founder of the Or Foundation, told DW that some of the clothes are just trash from households in Europe.

"Six percent of the clothing that comes in [to Africa] is already trash and that number has actually gone up from what we have found out previously — and that could be a shirt that somebody painted their house in and they wiped their hands all over, and then they end up over here [in Ghana]," Ricketts lamented.

She said that some of the items were intentionally destroyed and should never have ended up in Africa.

A tsunami of European electronic waste

Many African countries — such as Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Ghana, Republic of Benin, among others — receive huge containers filled with used electronic devices such as phones, kitchen appliances and even automobiles that are no longer road worthy for European streets.

The cars — often in disrepair — have frequently been involved in ghastly accidents in Europe before being shipped to Africa. 

Most items that land here have been rejected as unusable in Europe but are sent to Africa with the excuse that they are somehow useful to the people there.

According to a UN report, the world produced over 53 million tons of electronic waste in 2019 alone — up by 21% in just five years.

The UN's Global E-waste Monitor 2020 has also predicted that global e-waste — discarded products with a battery or plug — will reach 74 metric tons by 2030; almost a doubling of e-waste in just 16 years.

The trend makes e-waste the world's fastest-growing domestic waste stream, one fueled mainly by the higher consumption rates of electric and electronic equipment, their short life cycles, and the fact that they are not made to be repaired.

Ghana: Where Europe's e-waste goes

Burdened with toxic e-waste

E-waste can be highly toxic and damaging to people's health and although Africa is not necessarily responsible it ends up on the continent anyhow — especially in West Africa.

African environmental expert Nnimmo Bassey spoke with DW from Nigeria, saying, "the trend is not just worrying but consistent with what has been going on for a long time."

Bassey said Africa is becoming a dumpsite for all kinds of waste because the rest of the world is rejecting the West's garbage.

"Other nations are getting more conscious about waste in their territories and they are rejecting toxic waste from polluting countries and suddenly Africa has become an attractive location," he said.

For Bassey, Africa lacks strong laws that deal with the shipping of waste from the West into its territories.

"Our politicians, our governments are not taking a serious position on this phenomenon because they are also probably looking for payments for toxic waste to be dumped on the continent," Bassey explained.

Tackling e-waste in Cameroon

Slowing climate change

Ghana's Agbogbloshie enclave is notorious for its toxic waste pollution — largely from electronic waste. Young Ghanaians risk their health to extract aluminium and copper among others items from the waste products.

Bassey said Africa is already suffering from high levels of pollution from the e-waste menace as it "experiences the unprecedented impact of global warming, adding to that is pollution from the extractive industry."

The UN's Sustainable Development Goals as relate to the environment are aimed at getting the world to work hard at reducing the impact of climate change.

Africa is already experiencing the drastic effects of climate change and with many of its countries becoming dumpsites for Europe, analysts fear the continent will not be able to meet its targets.

"You cannot have a clean environment when you are accepting waste to be dumped in your environment, so clearly those targets of cleanliness cannot be met," Bassey said.

Europe must pay for dumping waste in Africa

For many environmental activists it seems clear that Europe should compensate African countries for the waste it dumps on the continent. Such compensation, according to campaigners like Kumordzi, should be channelled into making Africa safer for its people.

He suggested, "people that are not contributing towards protecting our environment must make budget provisions for that. Any company in Europe that is producing waste — plastics, electronic waste and clothing must source funding into African countries."

Bassey said Europe cannot deny responsibility for the level of waste it is generating and shipping to Africa.

"They [European countries] can't deny" being responsible for the waste found on the African continent," declares Bassey.

Each nation must begin to own their waste, he says.

"Each nation must take care of their waste. Consume less, produce less waste and when you produce the waste, recycle it or take care of that waste on your own territories," Bassey said.

"It is criminal for any country to dump toxic waste in another territory, because they clearly know the health implications." 

It appears this menace can only be resolved by the countries producing the waste and the African nations accepting it. 

But the continent — and the world — is running out of time.

Edited by: Keith Walker