Refuse, Regret, Responding

By Lantus (Own work) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Agbogbloshie, Ghana
By Lantus (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

The Paris Climate Summit has been covered extensively with the world looking to see what the great powers will do to curb climate change. The stakes are high and the tasks are seemingly endless. One of the world’s biggest contributors to climate change, China, has made promises to curb their emissions in the future. The summit preceded extreme smog alerts in the country for the first time since the smog alert system was introduced. The human and environmental health hazards in the country have been egregious for some time. As much pollution as China produces at home, there are illicit groups in the country that have imported significant amounts of pollution in the form of electronic wastes, or e-waste (also referred to as Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment [WEEE] and Information and Communication Technology [ICT] waste).

China is the largest importer of e-waste that contains heavy metal pollutants including lead and mercury. Up until recently, the e-waste was haphazardly distributed to dumps in small communities, salvaged for profitable components, and recycled for second-hand sale. In December of 2015, the government of China took encouraging actions to have these communities disbanded and moved the recycling of e-waste to proper facilities, although there is concern that this is a ruse to simply spread the harm around and reduce the concentration of e-waste in specific communities.

While cautious optimism can be applied to this move, it has some potentially damaging externalities for the world’s second largest importer of illicit or illegal e-waste; Western Africa. More specifically, Ghana and Nigeria where e-waste dumpsites are ubiquitous, but the problem is widespread across the region, and can be found throughout the continent.

The government, policymakers, watchdogs, and NGOs have been aware of the issues facing African countries since the early 1990s. However, as electronics like have become more of a staple in everyday life not only in economic North, but worldwide, the amount of e-waste has reached levels that have caused casual observers to take notice. Newspapers circulated shocking photos are of the largest dumpsite in Ghana in Agbogbloshie, in 2014 and 2015.

 Look at this Regulatory Mess

The international community is not exactly renowned for being a cohesive and smooth regulatory arena. The regulations surrounding transboundary movements of e-waste is a prolific mess. This is partly a result of the nature of e-waste itself and unclear, patchy regulatory frameworks. In many parts of Africa, especially Ghana, there is a strong market for second-hand electronic goods that are otherwise unaffordable.

This results in large amounts of Electronic and Electrical Equipment (EEE) being shipped from European and North American markets to these places as recyclable and second hand good for the legitimate and illegitimate market. Where this becomes a space for illicit e-waste dumping is the ease of labelling e-waste as second EEE goods and the difficulty of detecting e-waste among the huge amounts of EEE shipped regularly.

There are two major international treaties that apply to the situation. The Basel Convention at the international level controlling the transboundary movement of hazardous waste, and the Bamako Convention which is a specific response by the African Union to address holes in the Basel Convention in e-waste and other areas. Many African Union states have struggled to incorporate both the Basel Convention and the Bamako Convention into domestic law, and in places where it is the law, there is a frightful combination of lack of enforcement funding and corruption that makes effectiveness scant.

Degrees of Detriment

The manifest harms are easily discerned, namely the human and environmental health concerns of breaking down electronics with heavy metals and harmful chemicals.  The more latent damage is lesser known, but possibly more able to catalyse action from exporter nations. With a rise of personal electronic devices landing up in these areas, there has been a stark rise in cybercrime emanating from import countries. Large amounts of personal and company data may be on out-of-date (read: unfashionable) devices and may be used by organised and cyber criminals in import nations. To be clear, aside from the out-of-sight, not-in-my-backyard environmental and human health harm, they are coming after your money too.

Finding a Solution

A solution for this issue requires action from the both the export and import countries. The export countries have comparatively expensive recycling and safe disposal regimes that make the economic incentives for business and illicit organisations to export the ‘recyclables’ at a cheaper price. Notwithstanding an unprecedented move on behalf of all countries involved to coordinate a tax and pricing scheme that is harmonious, export countries will need to make keeping e-waste at home more attractive. This can be done in the form of grants, and tax incentives for green e-waste policies. It’s hardly perfect, but likely to be an improvement.

Import countries have to compete with interesting forces. The illicit economy for e-waste and recyclable electronic goods provides income for a portion of the economy that the government may not need to subsidise. Heavily cracking down on importers and dumpsite workers will result in higher enforcement, detention, and – if applicable – social security costs. Import countries will need input from the international community to set up the infrastructure needed to safely dispose of EEE and e-waste that is already in these regions. Import countries can also pursue increasing taxes on imported EEE to deter the mislabelling of e-waste as recyclable EEE, but this runs the risk of other countries underbidding them and simply displacing the harms to a neighbouring country.

Overall, those who are creating e-waste, both individuals and companies, will need to become more aware of the damages they are helping to proliferate, and if all else fails, must be aware that their personal information is at an increased risk with unsafe, and illegal disposal methods.


Nathan Seef (4 Posts)

Nathan Seef is Associate Managing Editor of Freedom Observatory. Nathan earned a Master of International Criminology with Merit from the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom and an Honours Bachelor of Arts in Criminology from York University in Toronto, Canada. He specializes in transitional organized crime and environmental harms. Nathan has given several guest lectures on green criminology and is passionate about finding ways to reduce the negative impacts of mass production. He has strong interests in issues of global governance, international law, and international affairs. Nathan is also an Associate Editor at iAffairs Canada, an online publication affiliated with the Canadian Foreign Policy Journal and the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada.


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