Reduce, reuse, reboot – why electronic recycling e-waste must up its game

20th November 2017 | Recycling

Tech powers many things, including cognitive dissonance. A few years ago I was travelling through Agbogbloshie, the commercial district in Accra, known as a graveyard for electronic waste, a hotspot for digitial dumping. I tutted and shook my head in sorrow as I surveyed the charred keyboards and plumes of toxic computer smoke wafting across the landscape. My Ghanaian colleague looked with some amusement at the tech spilling out of my handbag. My laptop, phone, iPad – where did I think they might end up?

Despite my relatively puritanical approach to upgrades (I can remember ALL my phones), there’s a good chance that those items ended up back there or somewhere similar. According to 2011 figures from the B&FT (Business and Financial Times, Ghana’s biggest business newspaper), the country took in 17,765 tonnes of UK e-waste that year, nearly 50% of all the waste electronics that were dumped there. For the UK’s discarded electronic goods, Ghana is still likely to be a major destination. Others include China, India and Nigeria. Out of all the electronic waste we send for recycling, 80% ends up being shipped (some legally, and some not) to emerging and developing countries. China is tightening up. A recent change in the law reclassified circuit boards as a “hazardous” waste, putting some Chinese e-waste reprocessors out of business. It was a digital version of the butterfly effect: causing more e-waste to be dumped on developing countries to be processed illegally.


This in turn causes well-known suffering and degradation. Workers who handle the innards of everyday technology, such as cadmium, lead, mercury, arsenic and flame retardants, lack of basic safety equipment. Reprocessing increases the risk of land, air and water contamination. When some e-waste is burned at low temperatures, brominated flame retardants (BFRs) used in circuit boards and casings create dangerous toxins.

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