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Computers from rich countries pollute the poor

In a new study funded by The Research Council of Norway through FRIPRO, researchers from NILU – Norwegian Institute for Air Research, and the universities in Oslo, Toronto and Lancaster found that nearly a quarter of the e-waste from OECD countries floods into just seven developing countries — with major potential health risks for the people who live there.

As local and national governments struggle to deal with ever-growing piles of electronic waste (or “e-waste”), scientists are now refining the picture of just how much there is and where it really ends up. Better knowledge of the global waste streams is also a prerequisite for understanding the global movements of both contaminants and precious metals.

Two-sided challenge

Knut Breivik
Senior Scientist Knut Breivik, NILU – Norwegian Institute for Air Research. Foto: Ingunn Trones, NILU

The e-waste exports from developed to developing countries – everything from used televisions and refrigerators to computers and mobile phones – is a source of concern. However, emphasizes senior scientist Knut Breivik at NILU, this is no easy task.

E-waste represents both a potential resource and a potential problem. On the one hand, the practice of exporting used electrical and electronic products lets people in resource-poor countries gain access to technology, or at least revenue from selling reusable parts and raw materials from the broken equipment. On the other hand, the researchers also know that environmental standards and the enforcement of those in developing countries are often too weak to protect the local population and the environment from toxic substances in the waste.

Among the waste products are lead, mercury and persistent organic pollutants, substances that are known to make people ill. As a first step towards a solution to this problem, Breivik and his team of scientists attempt to determine how much e-waste the developed world rid themselves of, and where it ends up.

How much e-waste is really exported?

Earlier data for e-waste exported from OECD countries to developing countries is often fragmented and often very uncertain, says Breivik, so the research team analysed and coordinated data from multiple studies to arrive at the most reliable figures.

They found most data for the year 2005, and their estimated conclusion was that about 35 million metric tonnes of e-waste were discarded worldwide this year. Almost a quarter of the e-waste from OECD ended up in China, India and five West African countries: Nigeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Benin and Liberia.

Profit driven process

Most Western countries, including Norway, have strict requirements for the recycling of electronics and electrical components. This should be disposed of and recycled in a controlled manner. However, such management is complicated, expensive and time consuming, and a recycling business based on western hourly wages and environmental standards is expensive.

Instead, import data for e-waste from various developing countries implies that a good portion of the waste ends up there, where the objects are either reused, recycled or disposed of in a far less safely manner.

Breivik says that this process is driven by profit: Exporters in OECD countries earn money, those who transports and imports e-waste to developing countries are making money, and people in China, India, Ghana and other countries make money by in a primitive manner recovering metals such as copper and gold from discarded products.

Global management

But while pollutants from open burning of waste and dumping of toxins directly into rivers and lakes make people who live in these countries ill, it is the same business that give them work and money for food.

– It isn’t easy, says Breivik. – To stop all exports of e-waste to Asian and African countries could also mean that hundreds of thousands lose their revenue base. One must at least attempt to facilitate more environmentally friendly and safe handling of the waste, wherever it ends up.

This is also part of the purpose behind the Basel Convention, an international environmental agreement on hazardous waste. The Convention aims to protect people and the environment from the negative effects of generating, handling and disposal of various types of hazardous waste.

Other studies indicate that the amount of e-waste will almost double and reach 65 million metric tonnes by 2017, all of which must be handled responsibly. Breivik hopes that more knowledge about where the e-waste comes from, where it ends up and how may contribute to better solutions worldwide.



Breivik K, Armitage JM, Wania F, Jones KC, 2014. Tracking the global generation and exports of e-waste. Do existing estimates add up? Environmental Science and Technology. Vol. 48 (15): 8735-8743.


See also:

About the Basel Convention: http://www.basel.int/

Press release from the American Chemical Society (ACS):