Almost 50 million tons of e-waste were generated in the world in 2018, according to estimates by the World Economic Fund. The future is more daunting: in 2050 we will reach 120 million tons. In Europe alone, each inhabitant produces 17.7 kg per year. We talk about all those cell phones, computers, televisions, refrigerators and cars that we no longer want. His whereabouts? Great barren plains located in the poorest areas of the world.
Next to an old wrecked car, dressed in a T-shirt, jeans and flip flops, he smashes a microwave that can no longer be repaired with a metal rod. He wants the metals that make it up to sell in the second-hand market. Not far away, without protective gloves or glasses, another boy burns cables from televisions and computer motherboards to melt plastic and salvage whatever copper and aluminum he can.
Is a normal day in Agbogbloshie, a neighborhood of Accra (capital of Ghana), which has become the largest e-waste dump in Africa and one of the largest in the world. Here, disassembling means smashing appliances, and recycling, burning plastics, or dissolving microchips in acid. Through the port of Tema, containers labeled as second-hand material from Western Europe, North America, Australia, China and Japan enter what was once the Korle lagoon, actually loaded with electronic waste.
The amount of waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) that we generate is growing rapidly. The World Economic Forum estimates that the global sum generated in 2018 reached 48.5 million tons(the equivalent of some 4,500 Eiffel Towers), an amount that he values at about 55,000 million euros. The most demoralizing thing about it? Only 20% was properly recycled. That is to say, almost 40 million tons ended up in landfills such as Agbogbloshie, where the irresponsible treatment of technological waste causes irreparable damage to people's health and the environment.
The United States is one of the largest exporters of electronic waste and the only developed country that has not ratified the Basel Convention.
As implausible as it may seem, there is an international agreement, the United Nations Basel Convention, which regulates the transit of hazardous wastes between countries and prohibits developed states from sending these wastes to developing countries, because they do not have the necessary infrastructure. for proper recycling management. But this Convention is not effective and technological waste continues to flood countries like Ghana, Nigeria or India. According to Salomé Stähli, Program Manager for the e-Stewards Initiative, a waste electronics standard created by the Basel Action Network (BAN), there are four main reasons for these exports.
First, "under the Basel Convention, exports are regulated (with prior consent), but not prohibited", so each country ends up deciding whether or not to import this garbage.
Second, "reinforcing international treaties or conventions like this one is complicated, because there is no international court that regulates them and in the end it is up to the States to reinforce said agreements." Therefore, countries with lax laws, a low degree of legal compliance or a high degree of corruption are breeding grounds for illegal imports and exports to take place.
Third, "The United States is one of the largest exporters of electronic waste and the only developed country that has not ratified the Convention ”, which also states that signatory countries cannot import from non-signatory countries (such as the US). However, the US Environmental Protection Agency allows the export of WEEE, making it easier for your electronic waste to end up in these countries.
Finally, "the European Union [signatory to the agreement and where exports are illegal] and other developed powers are trying to promote certain legal loopholes, since the Convention does not apply to functional electronic equipment, only to electronic waste."
The problem, he continues, is that "what is electronic waste has never been exactly defined and, by the time a device can be repaired, technically it is no longer garbage." But the curl curls more, because, on the one hand, any used equipment can be repaired and thus avoid waste controlsand, on the other, even legitimate repairs imply the existence of parts that cannot be repaired and that by definition would be waste.
An ambiguity that leaves the door open to legal exceptions and makes many exporters "claim that the material is not waste, because it can be repaired and reused," explains Jim Pickett, CEO of BAN. Since each country has different laws, those like Ghana accept containers labeled as second-hand material which they then sell on the local market or scrap to salvage raw materials. «There is a lot of money at stake in direct recycling of electronic waste as it is done in these countries, ”says Pickett.
The import and export of WEEE is a global activity that requires the "establishment of measures aimed at eliminating the economic incentive of illegal waste traffic", says AlbertoCastilla, director of Reputation and CSR of the consulting firm EY in Spain. From the point of view regulatory, «It is urgent to clarify whether we are talking about waste or raw materials that reach these countriesbecause there are treatment plants that allow the components to be separated and reused in a circular economy process.
This regulatory gap has led the BAN organization to draft an amendment to the Basel Convention that prohibits exports of dangerous goods to developing countries, including electronic waste. "All these countries should ban the import of this type of waste, just like China has done," defends Pickett. The Asian giant began to veto different types of waste in 2017 and now only accepts solid waste that does not contain toxic and polluting materials and that can be treated as merchandise. Ghana, for example, has not banned them. Observing the desolate plain of Agbogbloshie the consequences are deduced.
The report Holes in the circular economy: Leaks in Europe's e-waste, drafted by the BAN and in which Fundación Equo has participated, denounces that at least 10 European countries (which its study covers), including Spain, illegally exported more than 350,000 tons of WEEE waste in 2017 The International Monetary Fund goes further and in its report A new circular vision of electronic devices estimates that the EU illegally exports more than 1 million tonnes of electronic waste annually. It is the reflection of a consumer society in which each European generates 17.7 kg of WEEE per year. Each American, 20 kg. Each African, 1.7 kg.
Being realistic and, "although reduction and prevention must be one of the priorities in terms of waste management, we must focus on what we do with the waste we generate," says Rafael Serrano, Director of Institutional Relations, Marketing and Communication of the Foundation Ecolec, an entity that promotes the correct management of WEEE in Spain and in 2018 it managed almost 45% of the total collected, recovering 85% of the materials collected"We must apply ourselves to transform the linear economic model into a circular one, taking advantage of the resources contained in the waste."
The e-waste tsunami represents an unprecedented urban mine. Properly and responsibly recycling one million cars can recover up to 20,000 pounds of copper, 550 of silver, or 50 of gold. "We must innovate in the recovery systems for these valuable materials," says the EY manager. "Leadership goes through regulation and control, as well as design and production methods to minimize waste." Design is a key element in determining how easy or difficult it will be to manage this waste"You have to design thinking about how this product can be converted into raw material and used again to make new articles," he adds.
Recycling one ton of mobile phones, excluding the battery, avoids the emission of more than 8 tonnes of CO2
For the CEO of BAN, on the other hand, electronic products are not designed to be upgradeable or have a long life. It is clear that, for a decade, "the industry has been able to make all devices toxic-free, but it does not care too much to do so." And it goes further. «Certain products tend to be created so that they cannot be repaired. The batteries of the smartphones and tablets are stuck together 'so that they cannot be peeled off, repaired and put back on. The orbit of the circular economy is diluted. The responsible management of WEEE is of vital importance to achieve the Sustainable Development GoalsTreating them correctly would help improve people's health and well-being, have clean water and sanitation, boost decent employment and economic growth by creating new jobs, building sustainable cities and communities, encouraging responsible consumption and production, and preserving Marine life.
According to the Spanish Federation for Recovery and Recycling (FER), in 2017 582,438 tons of WEEE were placed on the market, of which 247,000 tons were collected. Alicia García-Franco, its director-general, believes that much progress would be made if the industry disclosed revealing data to citizens on the advantages of recycling EEE. “Did you know that recycling one ton of mobile phones, excluding the battery, avoids the emission of more than 8 tons of CO₂? An amount equivalent to the emissions of a vehicle traveling three times the distance between Barcelona and Stockholm ”.
«We are in a moment where technology is essential to orient production models to economic needsBut the ecological and human cost cannot be lost sight of, ”says Cristina Sánchez, acting executive director of the Spanish Network of the Global Compact. "Reducing the use of materials, reducing waste and finding through innovation the way to recycle and reuse is linked to different SDGs to which there is an urgent response".
Another pending issue, says the Ecolec manager, is "changing the habits of consumers and users regarding the end of the useful life of EEE". There is still great ignorance about the rights and obligations of consumers in relation to electronic waste. "On the one hand, we have the right to free collection in the sale of an appliance, both at the time of purchase and for at least 30 days after purchase; on the other hand, we have the obligation to channel them through the channels established for proper management: delivered separately to the distributor or at the clean points managed by local entities ”, explains Serrano.
But it is not only the responsibility of consumers and users. Manufacturers, distributors, waste managers, governments: they all play a role in preventing WEEE from ending up in illegal landfills. Germany has gone one step further and has committed to help the Government of Ghana with 25 million euros to implement management and recycling models throughout the country, with Agbogbloshie being the main focus of the project. Meanwhile, thousands of young people walk the streets of this garbage dump, rescuing from the scrap materials that they can sell and endangering their lives and the environment that surrounds them.