Ever wondered where your old TVs and computers go after you send them off for recycling or to charity?
Dateline's Giovana Vitola has found a mountain of old electronic equipment dumped in what were previously picturesque wetlands in Ghana in West Africa.
The e-waste is poisoning everything around it, including the scavenging children burning the wires to try and get at the valuable metal inside. Meanwhile, acrid smoke drifts across the Agbogbloshie area of the capital Accra, and even the city's main food market.
Stamped across the equipment, the names of companies and government bodies in countries like Australia, Britain and the United States, with many hard drives still intact and containing potentially confidential information.
Exporting hazardous waste to developing countries is strictly regulated, so how is some of it ending up in Ghana illegally? Do the companies disposing of it even know what's happening? And what do the Australian authorities plan to do about it?
Watch Giovana Vitola's investigation above, originally broadcast on 25th September 2011.
Then in a follow-up story, broadcast on 2nd October 2011, Mark Davis calls the Australian Government to account in an interview with Senator Don Farrell, and asks Lee Bell of the National Toxics Network about the environmental impact.
- Watch Giovana's Story
- Watch Reaction Story
- Giovana's Blog
- Recycling Info
- Transcript (Giovana's Story)
- Transcript (Reaction)
- Related Links
Watch Giovana's Story
Giovana Vitola writes for the Dateline blog about her personal experience filming the toxic e-waste dump in Ghana...
That day, the first thing I saw was the smoke. A massive, powerful black smoke crossing through the largest food market in Accra, smothering and poisoning everything around it, including the vegetables and fruit that would later be consumed by those people.
I also saw kids as young as five 'playing’ amidst all that smoke from the burning waste. They were scavenging for copper and wires in the largest e-waste graveyard in Africa, while inhaling the toxic fumes and chemicals.
It was hard to cope with what I was seeing. I had to keep focused and get the best shots I could to try to show the audience back in Australia the serious issue right in front of me.
While interviewing a shoe seller, the black chemical smoke came straight into my face. I had to flee as quickly as possible but also had to show – or at least try - what was happening to me at that particular moment. So without thinking much, I turned the camera to my face and said what I was feeling and what had just happened.
I felt a bit sick and couldn’t breath very well, and when I got home I was told to throw away all of my clothes and wash myself really well"¦ even though we’d just spent a few hours there.
It was absolutely horrific. I took some time to realise that what I was seeing was, in fact, real life of real people killing themselves, slowly.
The sad fact is that, together with other developed countries, Australia has been sending its electronic waste all the way to Africa, particularly Ghana. And without a permit, that is highly illegal. It is criminal.
Throughout the investigation, I was exposed to all this harsh reality. I learnt that usually the e-waste, when sent to other countries, is disguised as household goods or personal belongings, so it doesn’t go through any rigorous control or checks. Some is shipped as donations to hospitals, for example.
That is why we needed to film it all arriving in the port, to prove it was happening and how. Even though filming in ports is absolutely not allowed without the correct documentation, we managed to make our way through and used a hidden camera. Risky for sure, but necessary.
To our surprise, two containers full of Australian e-waste had just arrived that day from Sydney.
Talking with the receivers, pretending we were buyers, they told us one of them had flown from Sydney to receive it, and that they were not the only ones doing that. But apparently 'many people are doing it in Australia because there is just so much e-waste there".
The reality is that all this junk being sent to countries like Ghana comes at a high cost. Not to the industrialised countries, but to the environment and less privileged people on the other side of the world.
Many of us need to get rid of our old electronic equipment and we arrange recycling collections in good faith, but how can we be sure our e-waste is being recycled properly and not ending up dumped in places like Ghana?
It’s an issue being tackled by the Australian Government right now. It’s currently holding a consultation on its National Television and Computer Recycling Scheme, which will receive old electronic equipment for free. It aims to improve recycling of components and reduce the amount of the waste that ends up in landfill.
As a result of Dateline’s investigation, the Australian Department of Sustainability and the Environment has also launched an investigation into the exporting of e-waste, and it’s reviewing the Hazardous Waste Act to make sure Australia's doing everything it can to stop the trade.
Many councils already have free e-waste collections, but ask them where it goes after it’s been collected from the roadside. The Recycling Near You website has useful contact details and information for domestic recycling. There's also a similar Business Recycling website.
If you’re in any doubt, companies like the one featured in Giovana’s report, 1800 EWASTE, will collect your electronic waste for a fee and ensure it’s recycled properly.
You should also consider whether the item you want to get rid of still works, but has perhaps outlived your needs. Would it be better donated to a local community group or charity who could continue to use it?
Follow the links above and on the right-hand side of the page for more information.
You can also read more on the situation in Ghana in reports by Greenpeace and the Waste Shipments Compliance and Enforcement Platform.
Transcript (Giovana's Story)
PART ONE (Sunday 25th September 2011)
For years now, we have been exporting most of our dirty industries overseas and now, it seems, we are doing the same with the most dangerous junk that's left over from our consumer goods. We've been led to believe by many manufacturers that our used TVs and computers are being safely recycled in Australia. But, on a recent trip to Africa, Dateline's Giovana Vitola found that a staggering amount of the world's e-waste, including Australian waste, is ending up being burnt in open dumps in impoverished Ghana. It's creating an environmental and health nightmare there, and it's breaking a myriad of laws and conventions that are meant to be in place here. Nice laws, but things look rather different on the ground.
REPORTER: Giovana Vitola
This is Agbogbloshie, Africa's biggest electronics wasteland, where thousands of old computers and TVs are dumped every day. Amos is just 15 years old - each day, he and his friends come here to scrape together a living.
REPORTER: What do you do to get money?
AMOS: We are going to pick this, copper.
REPORTER: Do you burn it?
REPORTER: You also burn and try to find it?
Their aim is to melt the plastic off these wires to try and salvage the small amount of copper inside.
MIKE ANANE, ENVIRONMENTAL JOURNALIST: You find children, some as young as five years, coming here to burn.
Mike Anane is an environmental journalist who has been investigating the dumping of electronic waste in Ghana.
MIKE ANANE: The TV glass, it cuts you!
MIKE ANANE (Translation): How do you feel when you inhale the smoke?
AMOS (Translation): I cough.
MIKE ANANE (Translation): You cough? Do you have any other symptoms, like pains in the chest or the head?
AMOS (Translation): Mainly headaches.
MIKE ANANE: What is happening is that the electronic waste, the heavy metals, the toxic components are affecting the development of these children. These children are not growing the way they are supposed to grow.
But these desperate children are not the only ones affected by the poisonous plumes. Mike takes me into the streets nearby.
MIKE ANANE: This is a food market. In fact, it happens to be the biggest food market in Accra – in the city. Everybody comes here to buy foodstuffs, but unfortunately the food and vegetables, but everything has been exposed to the toxic smoke from the electronic waste that burns on a daily basis. Every day toxic electronic waste is burned here and that means the toxic components lands on the vegetables and people come here and buy them. Already you can see plumes of smoke going into the atmosphere, destroying the air quality, and there are a lot of people, children and pregnant women working in this facility.
REPORTER: So you work here every day, do you?
SHOE-SELLER: Every day, all the time.
On a bridge over the polluted river, I meet a local shoe-seller.
REPORTER: Why don't you go to another place?
SHOE-SELLER: I work here because of my customers all stay here. That's why.
REPORTER: So, you're here every day without protection from this smoke?
SHOE-SELLER: No protection. No protection.
REPORTER: What else do you feel, sickness?
SHOE-SELLER: Sickness, pains all the time.
REPORTER: All the time?
SHOE-SELLER: All the time, yeah. It's not all the time, it's sometimes – it’s coming in our direction.
We had to move now because it is just so dusty - the fumes, the chemicals, everything coming straight to our faces, we can barely breathe.
MIKE ANANE: We are exposing ourselves to heavy metals, and this causes cancer, lung cancer, organ cancer basically. They cause almost irreparable damage to your health. I come here very often to monitor the situation, document, to talk to people here. We need to stop the illegal shipment of e-waste. And we need the evidence, we need photos, we need these images to inform the international community.
Mike says it has been like this for over eight years, ever since illegal shipments of used electronics started arriving in Ghana.
MIKE ANANE: These items are generated from industrialised countries, Holland, America, Canada, and they are supposed to dispose of these things all by themselves, but rather than do that they put them on ships and send them here.
We drive up to the container terminal at Tema, about 30km along the coast, to see how the high-tech trash gets here.
MIKE ANANE: A lot of these containers contain electronic waste from the industrialised countries and we are talking about 500 container-loads of electronic waste, every month from these countries.
Filming with a hidden camera, Mike and I are able to sneak into the container yard. An international convention has made it illegal to ship hazardous e-waste to developing countries without a permit, so, the usual tactic is to falsely declare them as working second-hand goods.
MIKE ANANE: Look at this TV, it should not be here, it is broken. Look at this huge old monitor.
REPORTER: Are these ones also from Holland, do you think?
MIKE ANANE: I'll find out.
We find the people involved in the shipment.
MIKE ANANE: Where has this come from?
MIKE ANANE: Everything from Australia?
MIKE ANANE: It's come a long way! Who lives there? Your brother lives there?
REPORTER: All these from Australia? Yeah. Just arriving from Sydney?
MAN: Yeah, from Sydney.
There are currently no Australian Government permits to allow the export of e-waste to any country in Africa.
MIKE ANANE: It's obvious that a lot of them would not work because they have their power cords cut off. And that in the first place is junk – if you cannot turn the TVs on because the power cord is cut off, then what is the point of shipping them to another country? It is just junk, nobody wants these things in their backyard. Australia doesn't want it, so they are sending it to Ghana.
In the piles of TVs I find this one, with a sticker from an Australian manufacturing company. Mike wants to buy it, but they'll only sell it to him once the truck has left the port and gone around the corner.
MIKE ANANE: Most of the time when you investigate further, when you speak with these Ghanaians that you meet with the containers, they will tell you that there are Australians who are involved in the illegal shipment of electronic waste. There's always an Australian behind it. And it is important that we trace and track down, the source of electronic waste, and I do that very often. I go around collecting the e-waste that still have the tags on them, and sometimes I call these people who once owned the electronic items and find out from them how these things got to Ghana.
When I contacted Bailey Ladders, they told me they disposed of all their old electronics through legitimate recycling channels. And, of course, their free stickers could have ended up anywhere in Australia. To find out how this TV could have got to Ghana, we went to see Geordie Gill, who runs an e-waste company in Sydney. He explains that environmentally-safe recycling is an expensive process.
GEORDIE GILL, E-WASTE RECYCLER: This one, its recycling fees would cost upwards of $100 just to pick it up, recycle it, get rid of the lead content, and get the goods back into the market place.
When Geordie sees the footage from Ghana he's shocked, but not surprised.
GEORDIE GILL: It is nasty!
He's seen hundreds of TVs piling up at a charity depot in Sydney. Unscrupulous exporters then call them up and offer to take them off their hands.
GEORDIE GILL: I know for a fact that container-loads from that charity was sent overseas. We actually explained to them and said 'Listen, what you're doing is the wrong thing.’ But from their point of view, this product had been dumped on their doorstep, it was their responsibility and they don't have the money to get it recycled properly.
REPORTER: We came across yesterday some TVs and monitors coming from Australia. So how come they reached this place?
LAMBERT FAABELUON, ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY: Actually, you should ask the Australia Government,' how did they leave that place?'
Mr Lambert Faabeluon is a director of Ghana's Environmental Protection Agency. He says the country is doing the best it can with its limited resources.
LAMBERT FAABELUON: Our laws are still in the process of being formulated. The detection systems, we don't have them, and now the problem is being put on us. We should stop the things with our bare hands. No tools? It's unacceptable. And I think the onus should lie on the Australian Government to make sure these don't get out from that place. You could have given us intelligence information that the thing is coming. We are not there 24 hours. What are they doing there, allowing it to get out in the first place! I think that is the question everyone must answer.
When Dateline contacted Australian Customs, they said they don't keep records of how many shipments have left for Ghana or how many they've inspected. But, in the past two years, 15 containers of e-waste have been stopped from leaving Australian ports, yet, no-one has been prosecuted.
LAMBERT FAABELUON: Our government would have wished that anybody that can even be traced to Australia to be involved in this should be jailed. So I think the question should be answered in the reverse way, not what we are doing allowing it in here, but what they are doing allowing it out of their backyard.
Back at Mike's office, he's adding the Australian TV to his collection.
MIKE ANANE: This says Ministry of Defence property, is coming from Bath in UK. This is from West Yorkshire police - I got it from the dump, it came straight from the port, I saw this at the port, followed the truck and it went straight to the dump site, also from the Manchester Airport Colorado Department of Corrections.
Many of these institutions would be unaware that their used computers are ending up on the streets of Accra.
MIKE ANANE: Now this says, "Classified secret, US government property," and this will probably contain confidential information from the United States. This is also another one that says 'secret'.
Mike takes me to meet a colleague of his, Enoch Messiah.
ENOCH MESSIAH: So what we're doing now, we're going to see what we can find, what information on this hard drive.
Enoch shows me another disturbing side of the e-waste trade that will worry anyone who's thrown away a computer.
ENOCH MESSIAH: So you go to 'data recovery'.
REPORTER: You can find total information of someone, right?
ENOCH MESSIAH: Yeah, you can find personal information, company information.
REPORTER: So quick and easy?
ENOCH MESSIAH: Yeah, quick and easy. So people can take information and then use it to frame you up or do something against you.
REPORTER: Is it happening in Ghana?
ENOCH MESSIAH: It's happening.
With used hard drives available on almost every street, the threat of identity theft is very real, but the flood of e-waste has one small benefit for the people of Ghana - a small fraction of it can be fixed up and resold on the local market, giving people access to cheap computers and TVs. It also provides a livelihood for more than 10,000 people.
MIKE ANANE: They are trying to fix - where do you think this television is coming from?
MIKE ANANE: It is coming from Italy! He is trying to fix it, but if it doesn't work, it will soon end up in the lagoon.
Those that can't be sold or fixed are taken to the dump site, where Ghana's poorest rake over it to eke out a living. After a day spent scrounging and inhaling toxic fumes, Amos and his friends go to sell what they've collected. Amos' small sack of copper fetches less than a dollar - such a small profit at such a heavy cost.
LAMBERT FAABELUON: I've always been very blunt with the US Government. They have no moral right, and I'll tell the same thing to the Australian Government, to the UK Government. They have no moral right to allow their waste to come in here.
MIKE ANANE: I remember very much I would come here with my friends to fish in this particular river and also the lagoon, and we would play. It was a beautiful wetland, with lush green vegetation, cattle grazing nearby. Now, the river is dead, nothing lives in this river, not tadpoles, not even worms. It's such a worrying site. I feel devastated and traumatised each time I come here, when I remember what it used to be in the past.
MARK DAVIS: As a result of Giovana's investigation, the Department of Sustainability and the Environment here, in Australia, has launched an investigation into the exporting of e-waste to Ghana. We await the result. Giovana has written a blog for our website, explaining how tough it was filming in all that toxic mess, and we've put together some information on how e-waste is meant to be recycled here. That's at sbs.com.au/dateline.
Original Music composed by Vicki Hansen
25th September 2011
Transcript (Reaction Story)
PART TWO (Sunday 2nd October 2011)
Our report last week on the dumping of Australian e-waste in the African nation of Ghana certainly triggered a passionate reaction from viewers. Many were outraged that Australia's electronic junk was being shipped overseas with little, if any, oversight from authorities here. In a moment dateline will speak with the senator responsible for e-waste management within the Ministry of Environment, Don Farrell and Lee Bell from the National Toxics Network. But first a quick update on that story.
REPORTER: Mark Davis
Giovana Vitola found this e-waste dump in the capital city of Ghana, a toxic heap of old televisions and computers being burnt to retrieve scraps of copper from the wiring. She was led through the dump by local investigative reporter Mike Anane.
MIKE ANANE: This is a food market. In fact, it happens to be the biggest food market in Accra, in the city. Everybody comes here to buy foodstuffs but unfortunately the food and vegetables and everything has been exposed to the toxic smoke from the electronic waste that burns on a daily basis. Already you can see plumes of smoke just going into atmosphere and destroying the air quality and there are a lot of people, children, pregnant women, who work in this vicinity.
Using a hidden camera, Giovana filmed a container load of TV sets and computer monitors that had just arrived in Ghana from Australia and apparently bound for the dump.
MIKE ANANE: Where has this come from?
MAN: Australia. Everything from Australia -it's come a long way.
MIKE ANANE: It is obvious a lot of them would not work because they have their power cords cut off, then what is the point of shipping them to another country. It is just junk – nobody wants these things in their backyard – Australia doesn’t want it so they are sending it to Ghana.
Hundreds of containers of e-waste from around the world arrive at this port every month with the contents falsely labelled as working second hand electrical goods to get past international laws banning such shipments.
MIKE ANANE: Most of the time, when you investigate further - when you speak with the people that you met with the containers they will tell you that there are Australians who are involved in the illegal shipment of electronic waste. There is always an Australian behind it.
LAMBERT FAABELUON: The detection systems, we don't have them.
Lambert Faabeluon is director of Ghana's environmental protection agent.
LAMBERT FAABELUON: Actually, you should ask the Australia, how did they leave that place?
Good question, but no-one, anyone, seems willing or able to answer. The Department of Environment doesn't know because no permit for e-waste export was applied for - Customs don't know because they claim they don't even keep available records of how many shipments have left for Ghana or how many they've inspected. They told us to ask the Australian Bureau of Statistics for the raw numbers. For a fee of almost $1,000, the ABS advised us that between January and June 30 of this year, more than 1,300 televisions and old computer monitors were shipped to Ghana as second hand goods. That doesn't include the recent container load that Giovana filmed.
Yet there doesn't seem to be a need for anymore old TV sets in Ghana. So where is the incentive for an Australian to pay many thousands of dollars to ship a container load of them? To make economic sense of all of this, an exporter would need to have made their money before the sets had even left Australian shores. A possible scenario is that someone is posing as a recycler, taking payments off a council or similar organisation to dispose of the screens they have collected. This is increasingly a big business in Australia and it is certainly cheaper to send TVs around the world to put on a bumping dump than break them down and recycle them here. And it seems breaking Australian law is a frightening easy ruse to pull off through Australian customs, just don't call it e-waste.
When asked by 'Dateline' how old TV sets and computers could so easily pass through customs on their way to Ghana, Customs replied..
AUSTRALIAN CUSTOMS AND BORDER PROTECTION SERVICES: 'Customs and Border Protection takes a risk-based approach to screening of export cargo"¦
Second hand or used electronic goods exported in working order do not require an export permit."
Entrepreneurs take note - just tick the right boxes on the export paperwork. To answer our questions about Australia's handling of e-waste I was joined earlier from Melbourne by Senator Don Farrell, the Parliamentary Secretary for Sustainability and also from Perth by Lee Bell from the National Toxics Network, an environmental group working on hazardous waste management.
MARK DAVIS: Thanks to both of you for joining us. To the senator first, do you have any idea how many televisions and computer sets are currently leaving Australia each year, second hand ones?
SENATOR DON FARRELL, PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY OF SUSTAINABILITY AND URBAN WATER: In the last - since 2009 we have intercepted 15 ship loads - sorry, container loads of materials that have left Australia. We have required those companies to bring those products back to Australia to recycle them properly and that is done at their own expense.
MARK DAVIS: Isn't there a loop hope that seems to be running here that items being shipped out as second hand goods, we tried to get it through the ABS, it would have sent SBS broke to ask for the total sum, but do you have an idea of how many second hand televisions and computers are leaving Australian shores?
SENATOR DON FARRELL: Look, that obviously is something that customs deals with and they would - you'd have to sort of talk to them about that.
MARK DAVIS: But shouldn't your department have an idea of that? If this is the likeliest route for e-waste to be leaving Australia, disguised as second hand goods"¦
SENATOR DON FARRELL: Mark, what I think you have to understand here, what these people are doing is illegal.
MARK DAVIS: I understand that.
SENATOR DON FARRELL: People are exporting these products are criminals and they don't readily advise us of what - what numbers of computers they're seeking to take out of this country. What we as a Government are trying to do, Mark, is for the first time in Australia's history set up landmark, national legislation that's going to require the recycling of e-waste, computers and TVs, and in that way we hope to minimising this problem.
MARK DAVIS: Okay, to Lee Bell in Perth just quickly, do you have any idea of how large a problem this is, what scale this trade is at the moment?
LEE BELL, THE NATIONAL TOXICS NETWORK: Well, certainly on a global scale, we know that international customs agencies have estimated there's 1.5 million containers of waste being transported illegally around the world every year, and of that a majority is e-waste, and it was something of a shock to learn last week that Australia is now a contributor to those millions of containers of waste that are out there every year being shipped illegally. So we know that it's happening. We know that action is required urgently to fix the problem and no amount of legislation and regulations will deal with the fact, that those children in Ghana are inhaling the fumes of Australian e-waste today and tomorrow and until this illegal transit and trafficking of e-waste is stopped.
MARK DAVIS: Lee, can you give us an idea of how this business model works? Who's going to pay me to take old computers and old TVs off their hands? It's the only feasible way that, as a business model, someone can afford to ship them to Ghana. Who is going to pay me for that?
LEE BELL: Some people may pay you, but in other cases we are aware that materials, e-waste materials dumped to charities is also being picked up and a small amount paid for or taken away for free and moved on but unscrupulous dealers into shipping containers and therefore overseas. We do know that the customary way that they go about this is to declare the material as second hand electronic equipment, and really that should raise a red flag for the Customs Department and the Federal Police and the Department of Environment to go and investigate all applications that are made to export second hand electrical equipment.
MARK DAVIS: Senator, is that being done to your satisfaction?
SENATOR DON FARRELL: Look, Mark, we are investigating, particularly after the - your report last week.
MARK DAVIS: But did you - seriously, did you need the report last week? This is such an obvious route to take e-waste out of Australia?
SENATOR DON FARRELL: Look, Mark, we are stopping some companies who are engaged in this activity.
MARK DAVIS: If I turn up at port botany tomorrow as 'Mark Davis Trading Enterprises’, I've got a load of working but worthless television sets, what's going to happen to me when I want to ship them to Ghana tomorrow?
SENATOR DON FARRELL: Well, of course customs currently scan all of this material where they believe there is a risk.
MARK DAVIS: Customs advised us that if they are working second hand goods, they have no role, responsibility or ability to stop those products, is that the case?
SENATOR DON FARRELL: Well, look, my understanding is that at the moment there is screening done on a risk base - basis. Of course if the products are still working, then it isn't illegal to export them, but, look, the fact of the matter is we have"¦
MARK DAVIS: Which is quite remarkable. Lee, in Perth, the Government is introducing some apparently good legislation that will presumably address part of this problem. Will that legislation work - Very briefly in your view?
LEE BELL: Well, the legislation will take a lot of e-waste out of landfills because currently about 90% of our e-waste is ending up in landfills in Australia. Whether or not it will stop criminals from exporting this material overseas waits to be seen, but it's highly unlikely given the fact there's still money to be made in China, in India and in North Africa from processing this material in appalling conditions.
MARK DAVIS: It still looks to me like a glaring loop hole even with the new legislation. Isn't that open to exploitation? Can't I now rebrand myself as ' Mark Davis Green Enterprises’, take 1,000 TV sets off a local council who have had them dumped on them, and then ship them to Ghana?
SENATOR DON FARRELL: Well, Mark, if people do that, then they're acting illegally. They're acting both against Australian law and international conventions that we're parties to.
MARK DAVIS: Yes, but what are we doing about it? It's already illegal and nothing appears to be, being done?
SENATOR DON FARRELL: Well, it's not true that nothing is happening, Mark. We are doing things. We're examining the hazardous waste act. We are progressing with our regulations to ensure that we collect as much as we can of this e-waste and, in particular, setting a target, an ambitious target of 80%.
MARK DAVIS: Lee, in Perth, just very briefly, is the Government living up to its expectations at the moment or in the near future?
LEE BELL: No, they're certainly letting the international community down - Under the current arrangements, under the Basal Convention. If we treated these shipments like illegal drugs or indeed if we even treated them like asylum seekers I think we might have more action taking place in terms of intercepting the shipments that are going out from Australia to Africa and other places.
MARK DAVIS: We'll leave it there. Thanks to both of you for your time.
And it looks like a good time to get those second hand trading companies into place. Ghana here we come!
Original Music composed by Vicki Hansen
2nd October 2011