Following the e-waste trail

Photo essay | 18 February, 2009

Greenpeace has been investigating the immoral and illegal e-waste dumping in developing countries since 2002. After China, India, Pakistan and Ghana, this is the story of how one very broken TV managed to avoid being tested and recycled according to EU regulations and instead ended up in Nigeria as "second hand goods".

©Greenpeace/Kristtian Buus

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Transcript from Greenpeace Photo essay - Following the e-waste trail

My name’s Stan and I’ve recently been involved in an investigation into illegal exports of waste, electronic equipment from the UK to Africa.

The regulations covering waste, electronic equipment in the UK mean that everything has to certified as working before it’s exported. A discreet warning:

We got tipped-off with regards to potential illegal exports of waste, electronic equipment, by someone who used to manage some of the sites in Hampshire County Council for waste recycling. He actually became disillusioned with what was really happening to the waste there. So, rather than being recycled, it was being sent to Africa.

The first thing we did was obviously go and meet him, talk to him, verify the information, and that led us to actually try and prove that what he was saying was a hundred percent true.

Our plan of action:

We got a Phillips TV that was not working, and we took it to the Sky engineering department, where the TV engineers dismantled it and dismembered large parts of the insides. They sort of, relatively discreetly, installed the tracking device within the casing. The tracking equipment we used is a state-of-the-art system that operates on GPS, GSM and RF, which is radio frequency tracking, and what you get is very regular updates of position, you request a new position by SMS, and depending on the frequency parameter you’ve set for it to send you back a message, that’s how often you’ll get them.

Following the trail:

The first position you’ll see is actually the Hampshire County Council waste recycling site.

Then it was collected by a van, which takes it to BJ Electronics, who are the waste, electronic equipment recyclers, charged with dealing with the equipment; and they then transported it to their depot in Walthamstow, in North London.

Pretty much the next day, that TV, with no testing, nothing, was then loaded into a container, which we documented; and then that container travelled to Tilbury Docks, and it was then waiting to be loaded onto a ship for approximately two weeks.

The ship, called the Grand America, does a regular route from London to West Africa; and it also called in at Antwerp, and various West African ports, where we also got a signal back form it, and then into Lagos.

It’s a port called Tin Can Island, and it’s a very very large container docks; and that was where our container sat for about two weeks before it continued its onward journey.

Out in Africa:
Eric, with the aerial that allows us to track the radio frequency, detector part of the tracking equipment—it’s a relatively small aerial that allows you to locate to, well, almost a pin-point position exactly where your tracking device is. Allaba Market, which is a massive scale, second-hand TV market with, they reckon, between ten and fifteen containers arriving daily from Europe and Asia, full of second-hand TV’s and waste, electronic equipment. It was an incredible place; completely chaotic; massive scale. There’s just TV’s everywhere.

The next shot is actually a wheelbarrow that has, maybe fifteen or twenty, TV’s on it, being taken through the market. So, it’s distributed from the importers, who bring in these containers, to smaller and smaller vendors, who then take them into the wider city, and either try and fix them, sell them or dispose of them.

Above one of the little repair shops and the roofs are just staggered with TV aerials, which indicate everyone wants a TV. But the actual rooftops are also just coated with the old TV casings.

The end of the line:
Well, we got information from the tracker the night before, that our container was moving outside of the docks. We went to Allaba Market the next day with the radio finding, tracking equipment and I stayed in the hotel using a computer interface to try and get a new position, and through a combination of the tracker information, some on ground intelligence, and some good luck, we found the container down one of the side streets in Allaba Market. We were wandering through and lo and behold, there it was. The container is clearly identifiable by a container number, which is an individual number that identifies each container globally; and there it was, being unloaded and all the TV’s were being put along the street for resale.

Doing a deal:

We established which one was our TV by checking the serial numbers, and then we went into a sort of bargaining process with the owner/importer of this container. We claimed we were buying it as a present for the Nigerian fixer, who was working with us, and they seemed happy to sell it to us under the condition, obviously, that it hadn’t been tested. They didn’t know it was working; and we made a bargain with them; and got someone to carry it the half-mile back to our van, through the crazed market.

The next image is a receipt, actually, that we got from the importer. So, it’s got the details of the importer, how much we paid for it, and a brief description of the TV.

When we eventually get the TV back to hotel—last time I’d seen it was when we’d deposited it back in Hampshire County Council’s waste recycling department—and it was very strange to see it back after all that time.

A responsibility:

Hampshire County Council have a duty of care to recycle all this equipment properly; and what is very obviously happening is that it’s just being done on the cheap; and that means exporting to Africa, without any prior testing; it’s just a cheap and dirty disposal route.