Digital divide becomes a digital dump

Posted: 16 January 2006

A large proportion of the old computers exported from advanced nations to developing countries can no longer be used and end up on informal rubbish dumps in poor countries, posing a threat to people and the environment. Instead of closing the 'digital divide' between rich and poor countries, a 'digital dump' has been created in the poor nations, says a new study.

Exporting computers taken out of service from advanced nations to developing countries is a growth business. If the hardware still works or is worth being repaired, both sides can benefit from the transaction.

Manufacturers and consumers in rich countries get rid of their old computers and even make some money. The new users in Africa, Asia and Latin America, in turn, acquire urgently needed hard and software at a low price.

That's the theory.

In practice, this business is often no more than a convenient form of waste disposal for rich countries.

According to a study by the environmental organisation Basel Action Network (BAN), a large proportion of the exported equipment is worthless scrap, which ends up on informal rubbish dumps in poor countries in spite of being harmful to people and the environment.

Nigerian example

Each month, some 400,000 old computers and monitors arrive in Nigeria, where BAN conducted research. According to the Nigerian Computer Dealers' Association, up to 75 per cent of these computers can no longer be used and are beyond repair.

'While supposedly closing the "digital divide", we are really starting a "digital dump",' the BAN study sums up.

The report accuses the exporting countries of turning a blind eye to the export of electronic scrap - and of violating a number of international agreements, not least the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes.

The UN Convention, which has been in force since 1992, has over 160 members including all industrialised countries - with the exception of the United States.

But according to BAN, even the United States is under an obligation to control trade in hazardous waste, through an agreement within the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) framework.

New guidelines

BAN is worried that the export of hazardous waste from Europe could increase significantly in coming years. The reason is an EU guideline which requires manufacturers and dealers of electronic goods to take back and recycle discarded computers from August 2005.

If EU members do not monitor the export of used equipment more strictly, the study maintains, the guideline will lead to a 'tsunami of electronic waste flowing from port to port'.

The most important demand that the study raises is that exporting countries should ensure testing of every used computer taken out of the country as second-hand equipment. If it no longer works or is beyond repair, it must not be exported.

Australia has already passed such regulation but, according to BAN, poor countries will only benefit if all rich countries follow suit.

Source:D+C (Development and Cooperation) magazine, Vol. 32, December 2005, reproduced in co-operation with Third World Network Features. More feature articles from TWN are available at www.twnside.org.sg