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E-waste = toxic waste

Nicolas Martin / tkwMay 13, 2015

The illegal disposal of electronic appliances poses a threat to both human health and the environment. Yet still the pile continues to grow, a new UNEP report says. Solutions are slow in the making, including in Germany.

Burning tires, black clouds of smoke fill the sky
Image: Blacksmith Institute

Smoldering television sets, burning refrigerators and polluted rivers are all features of everyday life in the Agbogbloshie district of Ghana's capital, Accra. Predominantly young people burn rubber tires and old refrigerator foam to glean copper and other metals from defunct electronic devices. And in so doing, they are exposing themselves to some of the worst side-effects of a globalized world.

"One can assume they will be looking at a drastically reduced life expectancy," Matthias Buchert of the Darmstadt Institute of Applied Ecology said.

So toxic are the gases released that the United States nonprofit Blacksmith Institute has named Agbogbloshie one of the 10 dirtiest places in the world. It is home to some 40,000 people - but the Ghanaian environmental authorities say the pollution affects more than five times that many in the surrounding area.

A study recently released by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) shows similar scenarios in other countries in Africa and Asia.

"We are witnessing an unprecedented amount of electronic waste rolling out over the world," UNEP director Achim Steiner said on publication of the Waste Crime - Waste Risks report.

Pile of old appliances
Through export, many electrical appliances are given a new lease of lifeImage: picture-alliance/dpa

It says the world is currently generating 42 million tons of global electronic waste every year, and warns that growing demand could see that figure increase by 10 million tons annually over the next two years. Among the worst affected countries are Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, China, India, Pakistan and Ghana.

Blessing - and curse

By the time appliances arrive in Agbogbloshie, they've helped line the pockets of several middlemen en route. According to the UNEP, the illegal transport and scrapping of electronic appliances generates an annual turnover of some 17 billion euros ($19 billion).

"These devices are an important source of income for hundreds of thousands of people," Matthias Buchert said, adding that there they are often repaired so they can be used again.

That is also good for lower-income consumers, many of whom can only afford reconditioned items. Where it becomes problematic, however, is when the appliances are beyond repair, and there are no disposal and recycling structures in place. The upshot is smoking heaps of rubbish, Agbogbloshie-style.

Global imbalance

Generating 21.6 kilos of waste per capita per year, Germany is one of the worst offenders. The average Ghanaian by contrast, creates just 1.4 kilos annually.

Graphic showing amount of e-waste in various countries

Although the export of broken electronic goods is illegal, container ships laden with e-waste regularly pull out of German harbors. Indeed, theUNEP study says: "up to 90 percent of global electronic waste is illegally treated and disposed of." It calls on governments to enforce export bans.

"That is quite an undertaking," Buchert said. "It would require an adequate number of highly qualified personnel."

Having conducted his own research into shipping habits in the Hamburg harbor, he has seen cars, trucks and even entire shipping containers filled with e-waste destined for far-off shores. Although separating genuine trash from items that still have some life left in them is a long, drawn-out process, this is imperative in efforts to stop the problem.

Possible solutions

On a visit to Agbogbloshie last month, German Development Minister Gerd Müller said his country shares responsibility for the environmental and health implications of e-waste. "Most electrical appliances discarded illegally and legally in Europe end up here - including those from Germany," he said.

New draft legislation would oblige those exporting appliances to prove that the goods actually work. Buchert said it would only be effective if frequent spot checks were implemented. "It is not enough to only check one in 100," he said.

Other solutions that have long been bandied about include a consumer deposit system, such as that which already exists for bottles and car batteries. Such a system would see shoppers paying an extra fee that would be held until return of the appliance.

Buchert said he's also experimenting with another approach in Egypt and Ghana: Local companies collect electronic components deemed difficult to reuse, and send them back to Germany.

Although this seems to be working so far, he says the "challenges remain colossal."