Illegal dumping of IT waste must be stopped

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

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

Up to 900 containers a week are arriving in Africa and Asia from Western Europe and the US, 80% of which are being dumped according to e-waste experts.

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

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

Tackling toxic waste

The Environment Agency is tackling the problem in conjunction with border police. It made 11 arrests in the first half of 2009, carried out 170 unannounced inspections of suspected sites and 130 port inspections.

The government has launched a "No Dirty IT" campaign and is calling on businesses to change the way they procure and use IT to help prevent waste being dumped.

Experts say companies should use reputable recycling firms, buy products that adhere to EPEAT standards with low levels of toxic materials, and audit the recycling process. EPEAT is an international product standard that covers all areas of a product's life, from reduction of toxic materials used in its manufacture to a requirement that there will be responsible recycling.

McGregor says, "We need to reach down to the source and root out the hazardous contents urgently. Government CIOs will continue to show major progress in slowing down our IT refresh and replacement cycles and this will dramatically reduce pressure on the system processing these materials."

The Waste Electrical and Electronic (WEEE) Directive was introduced to try to control the amount of technology waste leaving Europe, but results so far are mixed.

Gary Griffiths, head of sustainability at recycling firm RDC and chair of the WEEE advisory group, says amounts of IT waste being exported may have grown since WEEE was introduced because of the high cost of recycling.

"Many unscrupulous operators are exporting [waste] under the guise of re-use, rather than facing the high cost of legally recycling it," he says. 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.

A high price

Adrian Harding, policy advisor for waste management at the Environment Agency, says it is not clear what is happening when the IT reaches countries such as Ghana.

"The people buying the IT in developing countries could be getting ripped off - they could be paying upfront and expecting a ship full of working units, but receiving useless broken ones. Or they could be receiving enough working units in each ship to sell on and make a profit, dumping the rest. We are trying to work out who is making the money," he says.

Dumped technology can be extremely hazardous for the people living near it. Children are among the workers who try to extract valuable materials such as copper using unsafe methods. It is the toxic materials such as PVC, mercury and lead that are causing so many problems.

Campaigners say alternatives for these chemicals are easily available on the market and suppliers need to work harder to eliminate them.

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

Responsible recycling

Sarah O'Brien, communications director at EPEAT, says companies need to put more work into ensuring their old IT does not end up dumped. "The difficulty is that goods for recycling tend to go through a whole raft of sub-contractors. Companies need to put a very strict set of specifications in the asset disposition contract. There needs to be an audit trail, asset tags, disposition reports, and a report on any change in the sub-contractor."

Only HP, Apple, Fujitsu and Lenovo in the UK adhere to the standard, but this number looks set to grow as more big purchasers include EPEAT standards in their procurement contracts - Tesco and BT have done so far - and as the government puts more pressure on IT suppliers.

The government has also recently completed a draft document for a common re-use standard which could provide a deeper level of scrutiny, although McGregor says it may take time to work its way through government.

Photo courtesy of Greenpeace / Natalie Behring-Chisholm

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