UK exporting more e-waste to poor countries than any other EU nation

The UK is exporting more electronic waste to developing countries than any other EU member state, an investigation by the Basel Action Network (BAN) has uncovered.


The two-year study used GPS trackers to secretly monitor the movement of 314 old computers, printers and monitors in 10 EU countries, finding that 19 were exported.

Eleven of these units were sent to developing nations like Ghana, Nigeria and Tanzania, including five from the UK, with these shipments “highly likely” to be illegal.

If extrapolated, it is estimated that annual EU exports of e-waste to developing countries could fill 17,466 large-size intermodal shipping containers, and would fit on trucks stretching back-to-back for 401 kilometres.

"It appears that we have discovered a very significant stream of illegal shipments of hazardous consumer electronic scrap to vulnerable populations," said BAN director, Jim Puckett. 

"This flies in the face of EU claims to make continuous efforts to implement a circular economy, which can only responsibly exist by eliminating externalities and leakage from the system."

Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Poland, Spain, and the UK make up the 10 EU countries studied, all of which were involved in exports, except Hungary.

And after visiting Ghana, Hong Kong, Nigeria, Pakistan, Tanzania, Thailand, and Ukraine, BAN found that e-waste exports are often subjected to substandard, dangerous recycling operations.

This includes worker exposure and community pollution, with smashing, burning, melting, or chemical acid stripping methods used to extract copper, gold, steel, and aluminium.

While some of the equipment was repaired for further use, toxic parts containing substances like mercury, lead, and brominated flame retardants, which could not be reused, were discarded or burned in local dumps.

BAN said that leakage of this significance “perpetuates an EU waste management regime on the backs of the poor and vulnerable”, and contradicts efforts to push towards a circular economy.

Moreover, the watchdog fears that recent efforts by electronics manufacturers and the EU to create a “repairables loophole” in the Basel Convention could result in a “tsunami” of e-waste flowing from Europe.
"There is far too much bemoaning illegal exports, while at the very same time, the EU is hypocritically works to make such dangerous exports legal,” Puckett continued.

“The answer to criminal activity is not legalising that activity, but rather improving enforcement to ensure the future health of Europe is not dependent on poisoning the rest of the world.” 


Image credit | iStock

Chris Seekings is a reporter for TRANSFORM

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