Europe is shipping huge amounts of toxic electronic waste to developing countries, a new investigation reveals.

A two-year investigation has shed light on the illegal trade of electronic waste that goes from EU countries to Asia and Africa, where it has a devastating impact on local populations.

Treatment involves dangerous recycling and disassembling operations where workers, often children, and entire communities are exposed to pollution from burning or chemical acid stripping methods used to extract copper, gold, steel and aluminium.

Seattle-based Basel Action Network (BAN) had secretly installed GPS trackers in 314 old computers, printers and monitors. Two years later, the group found that 19 of the tracked scraps were exported, including 11 illegal shipments to Ghana, Hong Kong, Nigeria, Pakistan, Tanzania, Thailand and Ukraine.

The investigation points the finger at several EU countries, including Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Poland, Spain, and the UK. The country exporting the most e-waste was the UK with five exports, followed by Denmark and Ireland with three each.

BAN estimates that the flows discovered would total 352,474 metric tonnes a year – enough to fill 17,466 large-size intermodal shipping containers.

The illegal trade of e-waste to developing countries is well documented. In April last year, following a series of inspections, the United Nations University found that 41,500 tonnes of used electronic items were shipped inside cars, buses and trucks into Lagos from the EU and US.

Locals trying to extract valuable materials from e-waste in Agbogbloshie, Ghana. Copyright: BAN

The most iconic example of e-waste dumping can be found in Ghana, at a slum known as Agbogbloshie. Here, BAN Director Jim Puckett, with support from local journalists, had previously recorded tonnes of imported electronic equipment that was smashed and burned so that the impoverished community could recover some value from the metals.

The consequences are often devastating. Locals in Agbogbloshie are known to suffer from burns, wounds, lung problems, chronic nausea and respiratory problems caused by exposure to highly toxic heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, and mercury.

Most of the locals die from cancer while in their 20s, Aljaazera reported in 2014.

Another group of locals burns toxic e-waste in Agbogbloshie, Ghana. Copyright: BAN

How is this allowed?

Exports of e-waste to developing countries are illegal according to EU laws based on provisions agreed under the Basel Convention – an international agreement which classifies e-waste as hazardous due to the presence of toxic substances such as mercury, lead and brominated flame retardants.

However, European recyclers have been circumventing this rule by allowing large quantities of scrap equipment to be exported under the guise of reusable products rather than waste, BAN found.

The investigation reveals that most of the equipment imported into Africa and Asia is in fact unusable, and that toxic material and parts are generally sent to local dumps where they are burned, creating far more toxicity than the original material.

Commenting on the findings of the report, Puckett said: “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.” He also called for an enhanced effort in the EU to enforce its Basel Convention treaty obligations.

Piotr Barczak, a waste expert with the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), shared Puckett’s concerns, adding that by sending rubbish to developing countries the EU is only going to create more problems, both at home and abroad. He told META:

“We must tackle the problem at the source by extending the lifetime of our electronics and ensuring they’re repaired in Europe. This way we can boost our second-hand and refurbishing markets, while avoiding inflicting so much pain on other countries.”

“Once a product can no longer be reused,” Barczak said, “the waste should remain in Europe where valuable materials can be extracted safely and put back on the market.”

Another local collects wires in Agbogbloshie, Ghana. Copyright: BAN