Today we've been able to expose an illegal export of e-waste from the UK to Nigeria. Get the full details here or watch the slideshow below but here's the behind the scenes story of the expose and the tracking technology that made it possible. This is how new tech tracked the dumping of old tech.
To highlight environmental crime we've been using tracking techniques for a long time, such as ultraviolet light to track illegal logs from the Amazon, inside info from satellites to track toxic ships but finding out how tonnes of e-waste finds it's way to places like China, India, Pakistan and Ghana has been especially challenging.
Firstly it's a shady business often operating on the boundary of legality. Then there's the technical challenge. E-waste often passes through several locations before being loaded into shipping containers where it often sits for weeks before being loaded onto container ships for export. Once the containers arrive in ports in places such as China, India, Pakistan, Ghana or Nigeria they often are stored for weeks amongst thousand of other containers before being unloaded.
To follow an e-waste shipment we had to solve several problems. As e-waste might take months to reach its destination the tracking device needs to be able to have a very long battery life. It needs to be able to transmit a signal while buried under other waste in a shipping container and be traceable to its final destination.
Following the e-waste trail - a Greenpeace investigation
Greenpeace investigates allegations of illegal e-waste dumping from Europe to developing countries. 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".
View the story
After much trial and error we settled on a device that's a combination of mobile phone, GPS receiver and radio frequency transmitter. The device only powers up when it detects movement, triangulates its position using GSM mast positions in the area, or satellite based GPS and sends an SMS alert that it's on the move. The exact position can be seen via an online tracking site. In order to pinpoint down to the meter, you SMS it to turn on the radio frequency transmitter and track it using a directional antenna.
Using this tracking set up we investigated if e-waste collected for recycling was in fact being recycled correctly or being exported and dumped in developing countries. The vast amounts of old, often broken electronics that we have seen arriving in Africa and Asia indicates large amounts of old electronics is being actually exported.
Some old electronics we tracked to reputable recyclers in Europe. Others lead us to Ghana, Pakistan and Vietnam but in each case we were unable to locate the final destination of the specific e-waste. In Nigeria we were able to find the very same broken TV we had delivered for recycling to Hampshire Country Council in the UK two months earlier. Instead of being correctly recycled, it was sold, untested as second hand goods, for profit to Nigeria. Because it was irreparable this TV, (along with tonnes of other broken or obsolete electronics) final resting place would have been a Nigerian dump site.
In this case clearly the UK council had a responsibility to ensure it was properly recycled and UK authorities had a duty to prevent such export of broken electronics that is prohibited under EU legislation. In the bigger picture this is just a snapshot of what is happening to huge amounts of old electronics in Europe, US and other developed countries. We are campaigning to pressure the biggest electronics makers to eliminate toxic chemicals and introduce effective global recycling schemes. This will ensure future electronics are less hazardous and much higher quantities are recycled.
You can add your voice to push computer makers to drop toxic chemicals and Philips to simply takeback and recycle its products.