The driving force behind Africa’s growing electronic waste problem is domestic consumption, according to a recently released United Nations report. The report, “Where are WEee in Africa?” [PDF] studied five African countries and discovered that between 650,000 and 1,000,000 tons of domestically consumed electronic and electrical equipment (EEE) are disposed of within their borders every year.

Industrialized countries consume the majority of electronics now entering the waste stream. Often this e-waste is exported to developing countries because regulations in Europe and the U.S. make it costly and time consuming to dispose of it properly.

E-Waste
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Electronics are known to contain heavy metals such as mercury and lead, and endocrine disrupting substances such as brominated flame retardants. When e-waste is burned, the easiest way to access the valuable metals, these hazardous emissions are released into the air, soil, water, and ultimately, the food supply.

While the use of EEE in Africa is still low compared to other regions of the world, the report found that it is growing at a staggering pace. Ownership of personal computers in Africa, for example, has increased by a factor of 10 in the last decade, while the number of mobile phone subscribers has increased by a factor of 100. This does not bode well for the countries studied in the report (Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Liberia, nd Nigeria), which are already seeing the negative consequences of unsupervised e-waste recycling techniques.

Although well aware that African nations are ill-equipped to deal with e-waste properly, other countries, especially the European Union, continue to dump their unwanted electronics on their shores. An analysis of used EEE imported into Nigeria, conducted from March to July 2010, revealed that more than 75 percent of all containers came from Europe, 15 percent from Asia, 5 percent from African ports (mainly Morocco) and 5 percent from North America. A similar distribution could be observed in Ghana, where 85 percent of used EEE imports originated in Europe, 4 percent in Asia, 8 percent in North America and 3 percent from elsewhere.

Still, African nations know that e-waste recycling could be a lucrative endeavor if a sound resource recovery and management system can be established.

E-Waste
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“We can grow Africa’s economies, generate decent employment and safeguard the environment by supporting sustainable e-waste management and recovering the valuable metals and other resources locked inside products that end up as e-waste,” said United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) Executive Director and UN Under-Secretary General Achim Steiner in a statement.  “In the run-up to Rio+20 in June, this report shows how measures such as improved collection strategies and establishing more formal recycling structures, can limit environmental damage and provide economic opportunities.”

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