Inside the toxic graveyard of Lagos
That Lagos, the commercial capital of the most populous black nation in the world, Nigeria, is the fifth largest economy in Africa is undisputed; what may not be known to many is that Lagos is also the world’s leading destination for toxic and electronic waste.
Only recently, the Koko community of Warri North Local Council of Delta State, hugged the limelight over a toxic waste dump, which is a repeat of the sad episode of the 1987/88 incident when two Italians – Giafranco Raffaeli and Renato Pent of the waste broker firms, Ecomor and Jelly Wax conspired with a Nigerian, Sunday Nana of Iruekpen Construction company to import from Italy, 18,000 drums of hazardous waste under the pretext of substances relating to the building trade, and as residual and allied chemicals.
The latest development is, allegedly, being perpetrated by a local company, Ebenco Global Links Ltd., an integrated waste management facility based in Koko. Already, the Executive Director of ERA/ FoEN, Dr. Godwin Uyi Ojo, has called on both the Delta State government and the National Environmental Standard Regulation Enforcement Agency (NESREA) to immediately set up a Commission of Inquiry to investigate the recent dumping of toxic waste in Koko town.
But beyond Koko is the disaster waiting to explode in the beautiful city of Lagos. With a population well over 20 million, Lagos has a rich history of economic growth and transformation. Although it covers only 0.4th of Nigeria’s territorial landmass, making it the smallest state in the country, it accounts for over 60 per cent of industrial and commercial activities in the country.
Lagos has emerged as a major hub for the hundreds of national and multinational companies and the complex business and professional services that support them.
Inside this boisterous state, which is the seventh fastest growing city in the world, and the second largest city in Africa, is a thriving informal sector, fueled by a burgeoning secondhand culture. This has given rise to a web of intricate industries and mega-markets that are mostly import-dependent.
The disposal of computers and other electronic and electrical goods, known as e-waste, is a growing global problem, though junk electronics represent a quality raw material for waste processing industries, especially in the developing world.
It is, however, no news that many of these junk electronics find their way to some Lagos markets like Ladipo auto spare-parts market in Mushin, Computer Village in Ikeja and the International electronics Market in Alaba.
These products come largely in 40-feet containers.
“On average, a 40-feet container weighing 9.9 tonnes of used electronics can contain 195 pieces of TV, 94 pieces of computer (monitor), 230 pieces of DVD players, 322 pieces of video player, 249 pieces of pressing iron, 810 pieces of blenders, 113 pieces of microwave ovens, 106 pieces of HiFi, 616 pieces of radio, and 558 pieces of electric kettles,” a 2012 Nigerian country assessment report, which contains data for 2010, noted.
In 2016, the world threw away 91.5 million tonnes of electrical equipment. A tonne is the equivalent of a thousand kilogramme, which is about the weight of a small car. It is left to be imagined how many of these found their way to the Apapa and Tin Can seaports.
In 2005, it was estimated that 75 per cent of electrical and electronic goods imported into Lagos were junk, with e-waste accounting for 12.5 per cent of shipments in 2009. By 2011, 70 per cent of electronics imported into Lagos were second-hand and only 15 per cent of that was non-repairable.
This is a huge concern because dumped electronic consumer goods are, essentially, toxic waste. Old-style televisions and monitors contain lead and phosphorous pentachloride, printed circuit boards contain arsenic mercury and bromides, same as fridges.
Buried in landfill, broken up improperly or burnt, these toxins can be exposed to the air or leach out into the soil and water table, leading to a severe healthcare crisis.
In the European Union (EU), the Waste Electronic and Electrical Equipment (WEEE) regulations govern how e-waste should be treated and processed, and also restrict where it can be exported. For instance, equipment cannot be shipped to developing countries for recycling and recovery, only for reuse. They must be tested to show that they are fully functional and packed so that they are not damaged in transport, otherwise they are classed as waste.
In the second-hand markets of Lagos, little consideration is given to whether the item is tested or untested due to an abundance of local repairers. Equipment shipped untested is classified as e-waste, and so it is in the country illegally. They are usually shipped in containers hidden behind working goods, concealed inside a car, or falsely described as personal items.
With a very lax regulation at the port of entry, there is often poor treatment of toxic waste materials, leading to the release of hazardous chemicals that can harm both people and the environment.
Most consumers abroad making the journey to the local dump with their “e-waste” might expect their equipment to be disposed of properly and safely, even if they are unaware of the WEEE directive that requires the disposal or reuse of this waste without damage to the environment.
How has Alaba electronics market infamously become the final destination for thousands of tonnes of televisions, computers, DVD players and other electronic items that previously sat in homes and offices of European countries before being taken for disposal to a municipal waste site?
In 2010, following a tip-off from a local authority insider that unusable e-waste was being bought and sent for export, there was a joint investigation by The Independent, Sky News and Greenpeace all based in the United Kingdom.
A large television set, with the base cut away to render it beyond repair, was left at a Hampshire County Council civic amenity site by investigators.
Under the WEEE regulations, it should have been disposed of by a specialist recycler, but the set was bought along with other electronic items by BJ Electronics (UK) Ltd, one of about 200 companies and individuals who tour municipal waste sites in Britain buying equipment.
A satellite tracking device inside the television showed it was taken to BJ Electronics’ warehouse before being sold to another company, who loaded it onto a cargo container bound for export.
The economics of the illegal export trade are straightforward. A whole consignment can be bought for a pittance from a civic amenity site, most of which will be working and a proportion of which will not. The system is supposed to filter out the hazardous e-waste and allow a legitimate second hand export trade. But what is happening is that it is all being lumped together and sent abroad, where the working items are sold and the broken stuff just thrown away to cause pollution.
Within days, the container was loaded onto the MV Grande America cargo ship bound for Lagos, from where it was unloaded and delivered to one of the hundreds of secondhand dealers in Alaba market.
It was just one of up to 15 containers of used electronics arriving in Alaba from Europe and Asia everyday.
Igwe Chinedu, leader of the Alaba Technicians Association, said of the 600 to 700 televisions in each container, about 250 do not work. “We find that for each container, about 35 to 40 per cent of its contents are useless. Of those, only 35 per cent can be fixed. The rest goes to the scavenger children at the dumpsite.”
Prof. Oladele Osibanjo, retired professor of analytical and environmental chemistry at the University of Ibadan (UI), former director at the Basel Convention Regional Co-ordinating Centre for Africa in UI and a board member of Sustainable Electronic Recycling International (SERI), United States, said: “We have about half a million used electronics coming into Lagos every month, and only 25 per cent are working. The volume is so large that the people who trade it burn it like ordinary refuse.
“The lead, the mercury and all the other toxins bio-accumulate. The people that break open these CRT monitors tell me that they suffer from nausea, headaches and chest and respiratory problems. As a result of breaking these things and burning the wires, the children inhale a lot of fumes.
“We have done a lot of studies and we were able to show that all the cells where e-waste dismantling takes place are heavily polluted. You are not only dumping the hardware, but also hazardous substances.”
Osibanjo explained that the poisonous chemicals withstand high temperature and are eventually released into the soil and ground water. “Where you burn them, they are being released into the earth. When it is really raining, they will wash into rivers and so on. A Ph.D student of mine in Abuja went to dump sites where they also raise cattle. She was able to get milk from a cow and then we looked at chicken eggs and all eggs. We found them all contaminated.”
However, the respected analytical chemist, said electronic recycling, when properly done, could be a goldmine for Nigeria. In this regard, he advised the Federal Government to consider recycling old phones, computers and other electronics, saying it was a good source of wealth and employment.
According to him, there were about 250 kilogrammes of gold in one million phones, adding that with e-recycling the country would witness economic prosperity and massive job creation. He stated that the United Nations had acknowledged the wealth potential of recycling, noting that Nigeria would no longer have to bank on oil, as she would be getting gold and silver from e-recycling.
Osibanjo further stated that although plans were underway to attract investors into the country for the establishment of e-recycling centres, poor regulations suffocating business environment were impeding the efforts.
Underscoring the dangers of e-waste on the environment, a report published by the World Health Organization (WHO) on March 6, 2017, has revealed that one in four young children die each year as a result of unhealthy environments.
“A polluted environment is a deadly one—particularly for young children,” said WHO Director-General, Dr. Margaret Chan, in a press statement. “Their developing organs and immune systems and smaller bodies and airways, make them especially vulnerable to dirty air and water.”
Beginning in the uterus, children are exposed to harmful environmental risks. According to the study, roughly 1.7 million children under the age of five die each year from factors that could have been prevented through addressing environmental risks, which WHO called “a shocking missed opportunity.
“Another category of threat to children’s health is emerging environmental hazards, including chemicals, electronic waste and climate change,” the report said. Electronic waste was “another growing concern”. When it is not disposed of properly, it can expose children to “a myriad of chemicals and toxicants, many of which are associated with reduced intelligence, attention deficits, lung damage and cancer”.
The import of e-waste from Europe into Nigeria is illegal by both European and Nigerian standards. Still, hundreds of thousand tonnes of illegal e-waste are imported annually into Nigeria. Despite local laws banning the import, inefficient enforcement still makes Nigeria one of the largest e-waste importing countries in the world.
The e-waste trade is illegal because Nigeria does not possess any organized e-waste recycling or dismantling facility. The mass deposits of e-waste are therefore left to be crudely recycled under hazardous conditions. This crude recycling of e-waste is toxic to humans and to the environment.
Intriguingly, it is not only the electronic secondhand markets that populate Lagos with toxic waste. Cosmetic manufacturing industries produce ignitable waste, flammable solvents, strong acids and bases. Printing industry dealing in heavy metal solutions, waste ink, solvents and spent electroplating wastes contribute its fair share to the toxic waste deposit.
Same with furniture and wood manufacturing and refinishing plants, which produce ignitable wastes and spent solvents; metal manufacturing firms producing waste containing heavy metals, strong acids and bases; as well as leather products manufacturing and processing firms producing benzene and toluene wastes.
Another notorious spot where heavy metal wastes, ignitable wastes and spent solvents are generated in quantum quantity is the Ladipo auto spare-parts market tucked between Oshodi industrial estate and Mushin city centre at Toyota bus-stop along Apapa-Oshodi expressway.
Like a cancer, the market, which has become a Grease Land, has grown in leaps and bounds, spiraling into every available space. As the motor spare parts merchants expand their empire, even the service lane of the Oshodi-Apapa expressway from Five Star to Charity bus-stop is not spared.
There are more than 30,000 parts in a car. There is none hard to find in Ladipo. In fact, there are several assembly points where vehicles are butchered into parts, and scraps brought into the country are remodeled into useable vehicles.
At the Grease Land, every section of the market is a beehive of metal merchants’ activities. Daily, vast stretches of the roads are converted to mechanic workshops, where cars take turns to be serviced. These artisans that have appropriated large parts of the road as adhoc mechanic workshops, carry out major assignments including replacing car engines and even spraying of vehicles right on the road.
Apart from thousands of importers of used electrical equipment making money off e-waste, the industry has also created a lot of jobs in the informal sector. Nearly 100,000 people are estimated to work as scavengers, people who pick the electronic waste from homes, dumpsites and other places.
Another 50,000 are estimated to work as refurbishers, repairing the ‘non-tested’, non-functional electronics. They make a living sweating to see that the imported waste can be repaired and have their life cycle extended.
Despite being illegal and hazardous, there is a craving for both e-waste and used electrical equipment among many Nigerians. The major reason for this, several retailers and traders said is economic. Most Nigerians cannot afford new products.
According to the United Nations Human Development Index, over half of Nigeria’s N170 million live in poverty. To enjoy the luxury of basic electrical and electronic equipment like fridges, TVs, and microwave ovens, most of them turn to the secondhand market. Besides cost, some Nigerians quite curiously feel the used products from Europe and America are of better quality than new ones imported from China.
“I’m even afraid of the quality of the new equipment coming into Nigeria, because you find out that most of these new equipment transforms faster into e-waste because of low quality,” said Segun Odeyingbo, an official of StEP Initiative, an organisation dedicated to combating shipment of e-waste to Nigeria.
“A DVD player can easily be designed to last you for six months, and then it has already turned into e-waste.”
In his reaction to the growing incidence of toxic waste being imported into the country, Director-General/Chief Executive Officer of the National Environmental Standards and Regulations Enforcement Agency (NESREA), Dr. Lawrence Anukam, blamed the rise in global electronic or e-waste scourge on technological advancement.
Anukam, who spoke during a recent sensitisation workshop on the implementation of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) for the electrical/electronics sector at the British High Commission residency in Ikoyi, Lagos, said the high technology consumption rate implies that sustainable production and consumption of electrical/electronics equipment would help control e-waste.
He explained that as a regulatory agency, NESREA is working with International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL), Lyon in France on issues of environmental crime such as e-waste, illegal wildlife business and trans-boundary pollution.
The programme provides alert system on any ship bringing in e-waste into the country and enable coordinate action with the customs and the Navy to arrest such ships. He said NESREA had developed 24 regulations which are sector specific, one of which is protect species of endangered wildlife from extinction through the prohibition of trade, importation, etc.
Other measures the country’s e-waste regulator has adopted to regulate importation of used electronics is by registering the importers. This is to ensure only functional used electronics are imported.
However, a lot of the importers are still not registered, the Lagos State coordinator of NESREA, Nosa Aigbedion Dickson, said.
“Some of them are trying to evade the process. We have a situation where someone just goes to, maybe, the UK, takes equipment from the road free, assembles them together, puts it in the container, and ships it down to sell the junks as untested. But we are trying to see how we can ensure that it is only registered dealers that are bringing used electronics.”