The second life of electronic waste

During Easter holidays I visited my parents, and as usual my mother needed some help, this time regarding the purchase of a new printer, since the old one wasn’t doing a good job any more. So we compared some new models and finally agreed on a multifunctional printer. The next question was where to bring the old one, and at that point I remembered an article about the so called “WWWE Directive”.

Following the “Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive”, introduced by the bodies of the European Union in summer 2012, all member countries are called to pass national laws to reduce the amount of electronic waste and to raise the quota of recycled electronic waste. Another goal is to reduce the amount of such waste shipped to developing countries in Africa.1)

Although forbidden through the “Basel Convention”2) the amount of  electronic goods that are not working anymore exported from industrial to developing countries increases continiously. Only 15% of e-waste  is going to be recycled within the EU.

Unbenannt.PNG(worldwide produced electronic waste, in millions of tons (2012 &2018: estimations))

A big amount of the rest is exported to Africa. In the last years, one place has become the center for the recycling of electronic waste: Accra, the capital of Ghana. About 500 containers of second-hand goods arrive in the port of Accra every months, the majority of them contain old electronic goods from Europe and the USA. Through intermediaries the content of these containers find their way  to small workshops, where components of different old gadgets are used to repair broken ones.

Those devices that cannot be repaired anymore are nevertheless not useless, since they contain a lot of valuable materials such as copper, silver or gold. To extract these metals, the waste gets burned on a big dumb in a district called Agbogbloshie. The so gained recycled metals are then sold to traders and shipped to refineries and factories in developed countries.

See the following illustration to follow the way of e-waste:


The circle of electronic goods and their components is a great example of how standardization in logistics helped to speed up the globalization process. Without containers and the surrounding infrastructure such as terminals in the ports it would have been much more costly to ship the electronic waste around the world. Taking into account that modern logistics not only improved cost efficiency, but also time and organisational efficiency, we see the great advantages of the technological progress.

But I don’t want to leave out the drawbacks of this system, which leaves the environmental risks and the danger for the workers’ health in the poor countries in Africa. It may be exaggerated but one could argue that containers also helped developed countries to ship away their problems and responsibiltity for a sustainable world.


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