A TOXIC flood of discarded technology is illegally leaving the UK to wash up in Africa, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) reveals in its new report System Failure: The UK’s harmful trade in electronic waste
Disposing of e-waste is fast becoming big business and EIA’s 18-month undercover operation – the most thorough to date into the illegal underbelly of the trade – shows that the chance to make a quick buck at the expense of the developing world is too tempting for some to resist.
E-waste most commonly comprises everyday electrical goods such as mobile phones, televisions, stereos, laptops, PCs and printers. European Union regulations require it to be properly recycled, either here or in other developed countries.
But EIA investigators probing the illegal export of waste cathode ray tubes (CRTs) have uncovered a highly lucrative international e-waste black market involving many players at every level, from small-time electronic brokers to large organisations, local councils and even major central Government institutions.
Illegally shipped out in bulk to developing countries, the waste is stripped down to bare components by primitive methods: copper wires are bundled and set alight to remove flame-resistant coatings, emitting vast quantities of toxic dioxins; CRT monitors are smashed with hammers, releasing plumes of lead dust.
Poverty drives young children to carry out this work to help support their families, and the potential health consequences for them are dire – reproductive and developmental problems, damaged immune, nervous and blood systems, kidney damage and impaired brain development in the young.
The UK appears to be an especially large contributor to the problem, with the majority of its illegal shipments arriving in Nigeria and Ghana, despite ostensibly working under the scrutiny of companies approved by local government and Producer Compliance Schemes.
African countries need good quality secondhand electronic goods but the high demand for items such as TVs, PCs and fridges is being exploited by unscrupulous traders and ‘waste tourists’, Africans who travel to the UK to buy used electronic goods from brokers – when their shipment arrives in African ports it often comprises about 75 per cent waste but the profits to be made from the working goods are enough to make it viable.
In 2009, EIA investigators set out to infiltrate smuggling networks by established a front company to enable trade negotiations with a number of firms involved in exporting and trading in e-waste.
Investigators learned how traders frequently circumvent Customs checks by mislabelling waste CRTs as working, using generic terms such as “personal effects” or “used household goods” on shipping documents and adopting a ‘no-questions-asked’ approach, knowingly offering untested CRTs for export and so shirking their responsibility of due care.
EIA was offered untested CRTs by brokers who claimed to have contracts with various Government institutions, including the Ministry of Defence, the Fire Service and NHS.
In spring 2010, undercover investigators visited six civic amenity sites in Greater London to look for signs of e-waste leakage. At council recycling centres in Croydon and Merton, they were shown how workers separated higher quality TVs from others being dumped. Investigators were told the sets are purchased by another company, Sanak Ventures UK Ltd of London, which claims to refurbish them for export.
To check that only working TVs were being exported, EIA hid trackers inside TVs which were deliberately disabled beyond repair and left at the council sites. Several weeks later, one appeared in Nigeria and the other in Ghana, clearly showing neither had been tested prior to export.
Electronic waste collection at both civic amenity sites is run by Environmental Waste Controls, one of the UK’s largest waste and recycling management companies with numerous high-profile clients including Morrisons, Tesco, Asda, Barclays, Hilton, MBNA and Prudential, the NHS and Network Rail. EIA’s investigations indicate that similar practices may be the norm in almost 50 other council recycling sites run by the company, located in Blackburn, Leicester, Loughborough, north Wales, west London and Yorkshire.
EIA has also drawn attention to the systematic failure of Producer Compliance Schemes in facilitating illegal trade. Information on contract rates paid to recyclers suggests that competition between the UK’s 36 Producer Compliance Schemes is so fierce that rates paid to recyclers are well below the minimum costs of recycling.
“EIA’s work clearly demonstrates the UK’s failure to take it’s environmental responsibility seriously,” said Fin Walravens, EIA Senior Campaigner. “Our e-waste isn’t a new problem and it isn’t going away. It’s time for the Government and enforcement agencies to give this issue the resources and attention it warrants.”
URGENT CALL TO ACTION – FROM EIA
1. The Government should:
• ensure continued funding for the Environment Agency to develop its intelligence-led enforcement approach;
• conduct a full review of the Producer Compliance Scheme system;
• commission a review of existing contracts between local authorities and Producer Compliance Schemes to ensure they have the means to carry out recycling, including scrutiny of sub-contracts between compliance schemes and service operators.
2. The awarding of Producer Compliance Scheme contracts should be taken off local authorities and centralised in the relevant Government ministry.
3. All e-waste left at Designated Collection Facilities must be quantified, and audited records kept.
4. Producer Compliance Schemes holding the contract for sites from which e-waste has been illegally exported should lose their contract after successful prosecution.
5. The Environment Agency should tighten its procedures for licensing authorised treatment facilities and contractors, including increased spot-checks.
Interviews, images and copies of the report in pdf format are available on request: contact Fin Walravens at
or telephone her on 020 7354 7960.
1. The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) investigates and campaigns against environmental crime and abuses.
2. The BBC Panorama programme Track My Trash, building on EIA’s investigation, will be screened on Monday, May 16, 2011 at 20.30 BST.
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