Television set

How a tagged TV uncovered a deadly business | The independent

A thick blanket of suffocating black smoke hangs over the tiny mountain of shattered circuit boards, shards of glass, and plastic casings of televisions and computers that slowly release a stream of toxic heavy metals and carcinogenic chemicals in the adjacent river.

The smell of hot plastic comes from a small fire fanned by a young boy with heavily bloodshot eyes who melts the plastic shielding of a tangle of electrical cables to extract the copper core. After breathing the dioxin-laden vapors for 45 minutes, he will have enough bare thread to earn about 60 pence.

Dozens of “scavenging children” scour the trash looking for fragments of microchips, motherboards and cathode ray tube hubs that they can melt. By scratching a living by removing tiny amounts of raw material, they expose themselves to a cocktail of neurotoxins and carcinogens.

Welcome to Alaba’s electronics marketplace in the vast Nigerian city of Lagos – the final destination for thousands of tons of televisions, computers, DVD players and other electronic items that were previously found in homes and UK offices before being dumped in municipal landfill.

Most consumers who go to the local landfill with their “electronic waste” can expect their equipment to be disposed of correctly and safely, even if they are unfamiliar with the Waste Electronic Equipment Directive. and Electrical (WEEE) which requires the disposal or reuse of this waste without harming the environment in the UK – or elsewhere.

The reality is shockingly different.

Alaba Point is the last poisoned abode of British equipment supplying a thriving second-hand market. It is one of hundreds of landfills scattered around the developing world that handle a tide of 6.6 million tonnes of electronic waste from the European Union each year.

Under the WEEE Directive, which came into force in Britain two years ago, any electronic waste that no longer works, such as a television set, is classified as hazardous and cannot be exported to non-OECD countries. . However, information from an insider of a local authority that unusable electronic waste was being purchased and sent for export led to a joint investigation by The independent, Sky News and Greenpeace.

A large television set, the base of which was cut off to make it beyond repair, was left at a Hampshire County Council civic amenity site in Basingstoke by investigators in October last year.

Under the Basel Convention, which regulates WEEE, it should have been disposed of by a specialist recycler, but the set was purchased along with other electronic items by BJ Electronics (UK) Ltd, a moving and repair company. recycling based in Walthamstow, east London. Documents obtained by The independent show that BJ Electronics pays waste sites for every item it receives, from £ 1 for a computer screen and £ 3 for a large TV, to £ 5 for a stereo with CD player.

It is one of some 200 businesses and individuals who visit municipal waste sites in Britain to purchase equipment.

A satellite tracking device inside the television showed it was taken to the BJ Electronics warehouse before being sold to another company, which loaded it into a container bound for Tilbury Docks in Essex. BJ Electronics has a test bench in its warehouse and insists it test all items before selling them to an exporter. He did not explain why he did not detect that the TV was not working, but insisted that he still follows the regulations in force and only exports working electronic devices.

The economics of the illegal export trade are straightforward. A senior source from the waste industry said The independent: “A whole lot can be bought for nothing at a civic equipment site, most of which will work and some of which will not. The system is supposed to filter out hazardous electronic waste and enable a legitimate second-hand export trade. But what happens is everything is bundled up and sent overseas, where functional items can be sold for £ 20 and broken items just thrown in to cause pollution.

A few days after the TV arrived in Walthamstow, it was placed in a container and loaded onto the cargo ship MV Grande America bound for Lagos, from where it was unloaded and delivered to one of the hundreds of second-hand dealers in the market. from Alaba.

It was just one of the 15 containers of used electronics that arrived at Alaba every day from Europe and Asia. Igwe Chenadu, chairman of the Alaba Technicians Association, said of the 600-700 TVs in each container, around 250 would not work. He said: “We find that for each container, around 35-40% of its contents are not working. Of these, only 35 percent can be repaired. The rest goes to the scavenging children.

With an average computer screen or cathode ray tube containing around 3.5kg of lead and burning to extract it releasing a cloud of deadly particles, the human cost of failing to stop e-waste at UK borders is appalling. raised.

Professor Oladele Osibanjo, Director of the Basel Convention Regional Coordinating Center for Africa, said: “We have around half a million second-hand computers arriving in Lagos every month, and only 25% are working. . The volume is so large that the people who sell it burn it like ordinary garbage. Our studies have shown that the levels of metals in the waste are well above the thresholds set by Europe.

“Lead, mercury and all the other toxins bio-accumulate. People who open these CRT monitors tell me that they suffer from nausea, headaches, and chest and respiratory issues. By breaking these things and burning the wires, children inhale a lot of fumes. “

This is a Dickensian business into which the television sent to Lagos would have entered if it had not been intercepted by investigators at the same time it was unloaded from its container by a second-hand dealer. For $ 20, it was bought back and has become just one less hazardous electronic waste that pollutes West Africa.

Threat to health

Many substances in electronic waste can be fatal. A cathode ray tube (CRT) contains an average of 2.5 kg of lead, a neurotoxin that can damage the kidneys and the reproductive system. The uncontrolled burning of the PVC shields around the wires and plastic housings of gadgets produces highly toxic dioxins. The barium in older cathode ray tubes can cause an upset stomach, muscle weakness, and difficulty breathing, while anti-corrosion chromium coatings are carcinogenic in some forms. Mercury in circuit boards and switch relays has been linked to brain and kidney damage.

Threat of identity theft from discarded computers

One of the most damaging aspects of the e-waste business is the number of obsolete computers making their way to the developing world, with hard drives full of confidential information.

There is a legitimate and valuable market for refurbished computers collected from large organizations in Britain, which are donated to charities for distribution in the developing world, and whose work is in danger of being damaged by people. unscrupulous exporters.

The problem is that thousands of computers that cannot be usefully refurbished are also collected under the guise of being reused and end up being sold in markets from Ghana to Nigeria, Pakistan to China – with data that has not been deleted.

Consumers International, a London-based NGO campaigning for tighter controls on e-waste, has found computers from UK local authorities, including Westminster City Council, for sale in Ghana’s capital Accra, while computers with details of prescriptions given to patients at a pharmacy in Leeds, including personal information and dates of birth, were found on city landfills.

In Nigeria, computers were found with sensitive documents from the World Bank and records from child welfare services in America.

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