In Lagos, Nigeria, truckloads of electronic waste illegally imported from developed countries is causing problems for human health and the environment.
It’s a towering mountain of waste that greets the eyes as cars zip by on nearby highways and head into the central area of Lagos.
Formerly Nigeria’s capital city, this commercial nerve centre is one of Africa’s fastest growing economies and is its most populated urban centre, with an estimated 21 million residents. But for all of Lagos’ appeal, the megacity is drowning in rubbish. It is mostly plastic waste, which threatens the environment in no small measure. Yet, growing piles of another kind of waste could prove to be far more dangerous.
Overwhelming amounts of electronic waste are piling up in landfills across the port city. Also referred to as Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) or simply e-waste, it involves discarded items that have power or battery supplies. Old electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) such as computers, phones, printers, televisions and refrigerators, commonly end up as e-waste.
As demand for new technology grows nationwide, and Lagos’s tech scene expands, so does the problem of mounting levels of e-waste, and the dilemma of recycling it. Although it states otherwise on its website, the Lagos Waste Management Agency (LAWMA) does not, in practice, specially treat e-waste by collecting and sorting it before it arrives at dumpsites.
E-waste is one of the fastest growing types of waste in the world. But globally, the eco-friendly recycling of e-waste is optimally low: more than half of almost 50 million metric tonnes of e-waste generated worldwide ends up in landfills or is illegally transported, according to the United Nations Environmental Programme.
As trendier technologies emerge, the lifespans of consumer electronics are getting even shorter, worsening the issue. The world is currently generating e-waste faster than it can be recycled or repurposed. Developed nations are responsible for more than half of that. In 2014, the United States alone generated 11 million metric tonnes of e-waste, 80 percent of which was exported to poorer countries where they are either sold for re-use, mined for raw materials or abandoned in landfills.
African countries like Nigeria bear the brunt: An estimated 500 containers, each carrying about 500,000 used computers and other electronic equipment, enter the country’s ports every month from the United States, Europe and Asia.
A ready market for used EEE encourages the importation, 80 million Nigerians live on less than $2 a day, yet more than 90 million use internet enabled-gadgets.
“Most people will buy used phones and computers rather than spend all their money on new ones,” says Bello Ibrahim, a small-scale gadget trader and repairer based in Lagos. It’s a market that yields quick returns he says, perhaps more so than selling only brand new products.
Big EEE sellers often have both new and fairly-used options available for their customers. Ibrahim, 28, works out of a small space in Computer Village, the largest information technology (IT) market in West Africa and confirms that most of the businesses here trade in used EEE.
Around 18,300 metric tonnes of used EEE arrive Lagos in shipping containers annually, originating mainly from Germany, the UK and Belgium, according to a United Nations-funded study. The United States contributes some 20 percent to the EEE importation figures. Apart from computers and phones, the e-waste also include air conditioners and LCD TVs, which contain mercury.
However, more than half of used EEE imported to the country is near end of life or completely damaged. European countries shipped up to 60,000 metric tonnes of used EEE to Nigeria in 2016 alone and almost a third of these products were unuseable. It is illegal to import end-of-life EEE, which is basically e-waste, into the country according to national laws, but weak testing systems at Lagos ports mean smugglers can sneak their consignments in.
A large percentage of used EEE shipped into Lagos finds its way to Computer Village. Located in Ikeja, central Lagos, the IT market is the main destination for thousands of Lagosians who troop here to buy used phones and laptops or to repair old ones. E-waste is generated on a large scale daily.
But Lagos lacks an e-waste collection process, so Ibrahim, the phone trader, and other business owners here dispose of their bad gadgets by selling them off to scavengers in the city.
They come every morning, Ibrahim tells TRT World, and cart away loads of old computers, printers and phones in exchange for some money. Ibrahim is not sure what they use the old equipment for but is fairly certain they resell the parts to manufacturers.
In reality, the e-waste from Computer Village and all over Lagos ends up in three landfills scattered around the city.
One of them is Olusosun, the biggest dumpsite in Africa, measuring up to 42.7 hectares and sitting right in the heart of Lagos. It is the sky-high heap of waste that most people notice upon entering the city centre. Although e-waste statistics from Lagos are unavailable, the dumpsite alone receives up to 10,000 metric tonnes of garbage daily according to LAWMA. A fair amount of it is e-waste, workers here tell TRT World.
Shamsudeen Muraino, 50, has worked here as a scavenger for over a decade. The waste here is never sorted, Muraino confirms, and both plastic and e-waste are handled in the same manner. Every day, Muraino and a hundred others dig through the piles of waste deposited at Olusosun with bare hands. More companies buy plastic waste, but metal parts and old computers prove valuable too, the scrap worker says.
Often, some of the equipment needs some repair work. But when they are totally damaged, they are burned and broken apart to be mined for precious metals like gold: A metric tonne of electronic scrap from used computers contains more gold than can be extracted from 17 tonnes of gold ore, according to the Environmental Justice Atlas.
Cables and wires are useful too, Muraino says. Thousands of bundles of wires are burnt every day to get to the copper. All of which is then sold to manufacturers to make new bundles. It’s the only work Muraino knows, and he doesn’t plan on retiring soon.
Muraino and his colleagues are unaware of how dangerous their work is. The men tear apart the burned gadgets with crude tools and then remove their treasure with bare hands. This dismantling process releases harmful metals like lead and mercury - heavily present in e-waste - into their systems, the soil and surrounding water bodies too, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
The burning activity also releases toxic fumes into the air, affecting the scavengers and residents in the area. Burning radioactive material has already proven devastating for Muraino and his colleagues once.
Last March, Olusosun was engulfed in a massive fire that raged for weeks, sending blankets of soot over the area. Muraino and hundreds of other scavengers, who had built tented living quarters at the dumpsite, had their homes razed. Residents in the area had to deal with dark clouds for weeks and Lagos waste authorities were forced to shut down operations in the site temporarily.
The fire only contributed to an already heavily polluted ecosystem. Underground water around the Olusosun dump site has been studied and found to be heavily concentrated in lead levels, above the recommended standards for drinking water by Nigeria’s standards organisation. Exposure to toxic e-waste substances has been linked to thyroid dysfunction and spontaneous abortions in pregnant women. Long-term results include DNA damage. Children are most vulnerable according to the WHO, with exposure causing irreversible damage to their central nervous, immune, reproductive and digestive systems.
Yet, importing e-waste continues to be a lucrative business in Nigeria, despite the West African giant’s ratification of the Basel Convention - an international framework regulating the global movement of hazardous waste - 24 years ago.
At a national level, the National Environmental Standards and Regulation Agency (NESREA) is making efforts to tackle the e-waste problem by enforcing a number of laws and policies regulating the importation of used EEE. The National Environment Act of 2011, for example, stipulates a life term for persons who carry or generate hazardous waste. The organisation is working with Interpol, the United States Environmental Protection Agency and sister agencies to apprehend e-waste importers.
But there has been little progress. Containers carrying vehicles filled with e-waste - a trick employed to mislead port officials since importing vehicles is legal - continue to dock in Lagos from the US, China and Europe, according to the Global E-waste Monitor.
Lagos is unequipped to handle the burden: Although e-waste recycling businesses are springing up in Nigeria, it remains largely unregulated and in the informal sector, managed by untrained and unprotected scavengers like Muraino.
“People are not aware that there are hazardous elements in their e-waste,” says Belinda Osarugue Osayemwen, an official at Hinckley Group, the first e-waste recycling company to operate in Lagos. Although the company has been operating for over two years, it faces serious competition from scavengers who buy off instead of simply collecting e-waste, a model that is unsustainable for recyclers.
“Those guys give (clients) a higher value than what a formal recycler will ever give because they are not incurring any cost,” explains Osayemwen.
Rising levels of internally generated e-waste, as well as a lackadaisical attitude towards recycling in general, adds to the burden. Nigeria generates 1.1 million metric tonnes of e-waste annnually (imported e-waste included) and although there are no numbers to indicate how much is being recycled, all evidence suggests that very little is.
E-waste dumping is not new or limited to Nigeria. In 1988, Italy shipped 18,000 barrels of toxic waste marked to a village in Delta State. In 2016, an explosive investigation showed that GPS-tracked e-waste dropped off at American recycling companies ended up in Kenya. Every year, Ghana groans under the weight of 40,000 metric tonnes of imported e-waste.
It will only get worse: the International Telecommunications Union estimates that 52 million metric tonnes of e-waste will be generated globally by 2021; a good percentage will be from the global West, and only 20 per cent will be properly recycled.
Environmental experts are urging the Nigerian government to ratify the Bamako Treaty, a continental framework which aims to place an outright ban on the importation of hazardous waste.
Many agree that tighter law enforcement is needed at the ports to stop e-waste from coming in. An outright ban on used EEE would be too harsh and would put “most of us out of business”, Ibrahim says, besides worsening already bad employment figures in the country.
“In developed climes, you’d have an extended producer responsibility (EPR) system, where producers take responsibility for the recycling and processing of the equipment,” says Osayemwen of Hinckley. “We don’t have that structure here. It’s every man for himself.”