E-waste in Africa: Risks, challenges and solutions

20.02.2012

West Africa faces a rising tide of e-waste generated by domestic consumption of new and used electrical and electronic equipment, according to a new United Nations report. Domestic consumption makes up the majority (up to 85 per cent) of waste electronic and electrical equipment (WEEE) produced in the region, according to the study. The e-waste problem in West Africa is further exacerbated by an ongoing stream of used equipment from industrialized countries, significant volumes of which prove unsuitable for re-use.

In the five countries studied in the report “Where are WEEE in Africa?”, Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Liberia, and Nigeria, between 650,000 and 1,000,000 tons of domestic e-waste are generated each year, which need to be managed to protect human health and the environment in the region. The report, prepared by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in collaboration with Oeko-Institut, sheds light on current recycling practices and on socio-economic characteristics of the e-waste sector in West Africa. It also provides the quantitative data on the use, import and disposal of electronic and electrical equipment (EEE) in the region.

Under the coordination of the Secretariat of the Basel Convention and in cooperation with Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology (EMPA), the European Union Network for the Implementation and Enforcement of Environmental Law (IMPEL), and the Governments of Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Egypt, Ghana, Liberia, Nigeria and Tunisia, Oeko-Institut evaluated data on generation, volumes and current management practices of old electrical and electronic equipment in its large-scale E-Waste Africa Project. At the same time, the UN report "Where are WEEE in Africa?", along with a series of specific analysis reports, has come up with suggestions on how to improve the environmental and social impacts of electronics recycling in West Africa.

Improving recycling and assisting in policy-making dialogs

"There is a pressing need to optimise the recycling of waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE)", explains Andreas Manhart, project leader at Oeko-Institut. "Many e-waste recyclers in West African countries work under conditions that are extremely hazardous to human health and the environment. With this situation in mind, we have carried out a number of training sessions for local recyclers to improve their knowledge on the correct handling and proper dismantling and recycling of end-of-life electronic equipment."

Oeko-Institut and its partners also assisted in the national policy-making dialogs on e-waste management in Nigeria and Ghana – an effort that has already given rise to legislative initiatives in both countries. The researchers' main aim was to find feasible strategies for West Africa to combine the protection of health, the environment and resources with the conservation and creation of decent jobs in repair, collection and recycling.  

Nigeria and Ghana: E-waste in West Africa

Oeko-Institut’s researchers examined in great detail the structures, functioning and social impacts of the second-hand and e-waste industry in Nigeria and Ghana. They also identified the pathways by which electronic waste and used appliances are imported into West Africa from Europe. Lagos, with 17 million inhabitants West Africa's largest city, is the main hub for trade in new and used electrical and electronic products.

"Nigeria imports more used and end-of-life equipment than any other West African country," says Manhart, summing up the results of the study. "This means that the repair and recycling of used and scrap items constitutes an important job market for Nigerians. In the city’s two main market places alone – Alaba Market and Ikeja Computer Village –, 15,000 people, organised in 5,500 small enterprises, repair and sell second-hand electrical and electronic equipment. Any effort towards reform of this partially informal sector must confront the issue of what is to happen to these jobs in the future."

Fortunately, there is good news to report. For example, Ghana's impressively efficient collection system takes in 95 per cent of all end-of-life equipment – far more than European countries can boast.

"There are good reasons why West Africa should not simply go down the European path when it comes to recycling", stresses Manhart. "European procedures are often designed to function with as few employees as possible. In West Africa this would be undesirable for social reasons. Besides, with many mechanised methods scarce and valuable metals are irretrievably lost."

UNEP Press release: “Domestic Consumption is Main Contributor to Africa's E-Waste” 

Study: “Where are WEee in Africa?” E-Waste in West Africa; UNEP, Oeko-Institut, EMPA, BCCC and other partners 

Study: "Informal e-waste management in Lagos, Nigeria – socio-economic impacts and feasibility of international recycling co-operations", Oeko-Institut 

Study: “Flows of used and end-of-life e-products from Germany, The Netherlands and Belgium”; Oeko-Institut

Further information by Oeko-Institut on electro-scrap recycling

Press release: "Elektroschrott – jenseits von gut und böse“ [German language only]

Study: "Socio-economic assessment and feasibility study on sustainable e-waste management in Ghana"; Oeko-Institut 

Brief summary of the study on sustainable electronic scrap recycling in Ghana [German language only]

Your contact at Oeko-Institut

Andreas Manhart
Scientific researcher in the institute's division for product and materials flow
Oeko-Institut
Tel: +49 89 125900 77
E-mail: a.manhart--at--oeko.de

Oeko-Institut is a leading European research and consultancy institute working for a sustainable future. Founded in 1977, the institute develops principles and strategies for realising the vision of sustainable development – globally, nationally and locally. Oeko-Institut operates three offices in Germany, in Freiburg, Darmstadt and Berlin.

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