Illegal E-Waste shipment Wreak Havoc on Poor Nations

Despite Several Attempts, Toxic Electronic Waste is Still Being Discarded into Developing Countries

by: Terri Rue-Woods, Information Assurance/Executive Strategy Officer, e-End

Photo Credit to  Vibek Raj Maurya.

Photo Credit to Vibek Raj Maurya.

In 2013, the United Nations attempted to warn people about the dangerously high volume of e-waste that was being illegally shipped to 3rd world countries. An independent article by John Vidal in The Guardian, conveyed the concern of how the recent holiday electronics shopping of that year would cause a massive flood of electronic waste. "Christmas will see a surge in sales and waste around the world," a statement made by Ruediger Kuehr, executive secretary of STEP (Solving the e-Waste Problem) . "The explosion is happening because there's so much technical innovation. TVs, mobile phones and computers are all being replaced more and more quickly. The lifetime of products is also shortening."

The UN's STEP initiative is an organization created to try and tackle the world’s increasing e-waste issues. According to a report from STEP, the electronic waste in question, consists of devices such as CRT TVs, phones, computers, monitors, e-toys, digital cameras, and several other electronic items. Even appliances like old refrigerators and motorized toothbrushes can be found in the collection of waste being discarded.

The Current Dilemma

One of the biggest on-going problems with the vast production of electronic waste centers around its illegal exporting to development areas like west African and Asia. Even though there is an awareness of the illegal practices, due to the lack of accurate e-waste tracking and several false product representations, it is difficult for most government officials to maintain a proper tally.

In one year, policing agencies like Interpol found that despite extensive and frequent checks, there were still at least one in three containers leaving places like the European Union containing e-waste materials.

Devastating Situations

Children heading from a rural African village to collect water.

Children heading from a rural African village to collect water.

When e-waste is dumped into the landfills of poor areas, the known toxic materials in many of the devices seep out into the environment. Most of the electronic items that make-up the bulk of the waste contain substances such as lead, mercury, cadmium, arsenic and other hazardous elements. Water and land contamination in addition to improper handling are major causes for population illnesses.

In one photographer’s 2014 documentary, Kevin McElvaney featured his photos taken in Agbogbloshie, a former wetland in Accra, Ghana and also a place listed as the world’s largest e-waste dump site. Both the residents and animals are heavily affected by the harsh environmental conditions cause by the excessive amounts of waste. According to McElvaney, there are several cases of injuries including burns, eye damage, lung & back problems, chronic nausea, respiratory problems, and severe headaches.

Kwabena Labobe, 10, plays on the site. His parents are not able to send him to school and forbid him to burn e-waste .

Kwabena Labobe, 10, plays on the site. His parents are not able to send him to school and forbid him to burn e-waste .

Continuing Problem

A 2017 journal article from the International Journal of Integrated Waste Management, Science and Technology about Waste Management reported that in 2010, the US only collected a mere 12 million mobile phones for recycling despite the 120 million purchased by consumers. Considered that buyers often seek to replace their current exist devices as newer products hit the market, then the question remains as to what happens to the other percentage of discarded electronic products? And if this less than stellar average of recycling rates happen in the US, then it is now understandable how this can be a continuing global issue.

In a 2015-2016 routine research check of import/export shipping containers, officials found that thousands of tons of toxic e-waste materials were being shipped to Nigeria. Further studies revealed that they bulk of the items were coming from Europe and roughly 7% came from the US.

The United Nations has reported that the production of e-waste has increased by 8% from the year 2014 to the next. In the same UN report, it has been estimated that this rate will increase another 17% by 2021.

Any Solutions?

Many official organizations such at the US EPA, UN's STEP initiative, and the Basel Action Network, an agency developed to try and end toxic trade and campaign for the right of a clean environment, are trying to push forward global acts to reduce illegal e-waste movements. Unfortunately, their effort coupled with increase legislation do not seem to be enough to stop the eco- endangering practices. Environmental agencies insist that legal strong-arming may be used to scare offender, but the true way to put a dent in the crisis is to increase environmental awareness, promote proper e-waste recycling efforts, and advocate for not only the implementation of company certification, but make sure the policies are cared out correctly.


Bienkowski, B. April 19, 2018. “The world is sending tons of illegal, electronic waste to Nigeria: Report” Environmental Health News.

McElvaney, K. February 27, 2014. “Agbogbloshie: the world's largest e-waste dump – in pictures” The Guardian.