Criminal gangs dump toxic IT in developing world

Gangs of criminals, posing as computer recycling firms, are dumping hundreds of containers full of broken computer equipment in the developing world every week.

Gangs of criminals, posing as computer recycling firms, are dumping hundreds of containers full of broken computer equipment in the developing world every week.

Up to 900 containers a week are arriving in Africa and Asia from Western Europe and the US, according to e-waste experts.

The practice is exposing workers hired to extract valuable materials from the waste to toxic materials including mercury and lead. Children are among these workers.

It has alarmed the Environment Agency, which is working with border police to tackle the problem. It carried out 170 unannounced inspections of suspected sites and 130 port inspections in the first half of 2009, resulting in 11 arrests.

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  "Many unscrupulous operators are exporting [the equipment] under the guise of re-use, rather than facing the high cost of recycling them legally," said Gary Griffiths, head of sustainability at recycling firm RDC and chair of the electronic waste advisory group.

"Criminals who are paid to take equipment from businesses can either pay £3-5 per unit to have it legally recycled, or receive £2-3 per unit by selling it on to a third party in Africa or Asia illegally under the category of second-hand goods," he said.

Data mining danger

Dumped IT also presents a "huge data issue", Griffiths said, with criminals mining the IT they receive for personal details that can be used in identity fraud or spam lists.

The UK government says it is unable to stop the practice because of the exponential surge in volumes of incorrectly classified waste being exported.

Catalina McGregor, the government's deputy champion for green IT, said, "I could write the best policy in the world and there would still be dumping because it's a lucrative industry. It doesn't matter how pretty the paperwork is, it's still going to happen."

Photo courtesy of Greenpeace/Natalie Behring-Chisholm

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