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Page last updated at 09:02 GMT, Monday, 16 May 2011 10:02 UK
Britain's e-waste illegally leaking into West Africa

boy on Ghana dumpsite

In Britain each year, we throw away a million tonnes of electronic waste - enough to fill Wembley Stadium six times over. So what happens to our broken TVs and computers - our e-waste - once we have dumped it? Raphael Rowe reports from Ghana.

When he turns his hand over, 10-year-old Mohammed reveals the deep open cut on his thumb, visible through the black soot that covers his small hands. Two other cuts have been covered up with blackened, filthy plasters.

He tells me that the wounds are from the sharp copper wire that he is scavenging from the biggest digital graveyard in Africa.

The Agbogbloshie dumpsite is where the poorest of nearby Accra stream in order to scrape out a living from the tons of electrical waste piled here.

UK consumers bought more than 17 million TVs and computers
Computer sales: 8.2 million
Television sales: 9.5 million
Source: GFK retail and technology UK

Alfred, 12, said he has no choice but to eke out a living at the dumpsite since his mother died. He complained of headaches from the toxic fumes as he and the others use their hands, hammers and fire to extract precious metals from the scrap heap.

Activists told me the nearby river is dead owing to the contamination from this crude form of recycling.

And, they add, much of this electronic garbage - known as e-waste - originates in the UK.

Mike Anane is a campaigner with the League of Environmental Journalists which is trying to stop e-waste pouring into Ghana.

"We are destroying the lives of children, we are destroying the environment, the rivers no longer have fish, just because of the illegal shipments and dumping of electronic waste from the UK," he said.

Tracking devices

It is estimated that 100,000 tons of e-waste is leaking out of the UK each year via the ports that see seven million containers exported each year.

There needs to be a lot more enforcement, but there also needs to be a shake-up of how we handle electronic waste in the UK
Environmental Investigation Agency campaign group

A confidential report obtained by Panorama suggests that 77% of e-waste from England and Wales ends up in West Africa, primarily Ghana and Nigeria.

Environmental law states that broken electronics, everything from fridges to televisions to computer monitors, should be responsibly recycled within the UK. Discarded electronics need to be tested to ensure they work before they can be legally exported for resale, usually to the developing world.

But a BBC Panorama investigation that involved putting hidden tracking devices in broken televisions found evidence of large amounts of e-waste being illegally shipped to West Africa where boys like Mohammed and Alfred are risking their health for scraps of copper and pennies a day.

The Environment Agency, which has a special investigations unit dedicated to halting these illegal exports, said the reason behind the trade is obvious.

"There is a vast sum of money to be made by exporting abroad illegally," said Chris Smith, National Intelligence Manager at the EA.

The government estimates that a 40-foot container of used televisions can contain as many as 600 sets and is worth £7,000 in the street markets of West Africa.

It estimates that one in eight containers claiming to be working electronics, is in fact broken e-waste.

The maximum penalty for the illegal export of e-waste is an unlimited fine and two years in prison. But in practice the maximum fine has been around £12,000 and no one has been sent to prison.

'Send a message'

Margaret Bates, a lecturer in sustainable waste management at Northampton University, said that while other streams of waste are being reduced owing to recycling efforts, e-waste is going in the opposite direction - growing at a rate of 5% a year.

Panorama logo
Raphael Rowe presents Panorama: Track My Trash
Monday, 16 May
8.30 on BBC One

She said the cost and time it takes to safely recycle e-waste is fuelling the illegal trade.

Ms Bates said it is time for a message to be sent to illegal exporters.

"Until fairly recently a lot of the criminals involved in the e-waste trade didn't think they were going to get caught. We need to see people who are doing this sort of thing coming through regularly in the courts and being made to suffer for it."

Posing as a small business, Panorama placed a hidden tracking device in a broken television set and then paid a private recycling firm, Sanak Ventures, to dispose of the set.

From the company's warehouse in Wembley, the tracker showed that the television was soon on the move to Felixstowe Docks, then shipped to Ghana before if finally ended up in Lagos, Nigeria.

And it was in Lagos, in a street market, that we found it - still broken - and for sale for £40.

Taking responsibility

When asked about how a broken television managed to be exported, Sanak Ventures said they were a respectable company and denied any wrong-doing, but they failed to answer our question of how our broken JVC television ended up in Nigeria.

Mike Anane and Raphael Rowe
Campaigner Mike Anane says the onus is on the UK to halt e-waste

Activist Mike Anane said while governments in Africa are attempting to legislate against the e-waste trade, the source of the broken electronics needs to be addressed.

"I think that the onus and greater part of the responsibility rest with the people in the UK," he said.

It is a sentiment echoed by the Environmental Investigation Agency - a campaign group.

A spokeswoman for the group, which has also attempted to track e-waste from the UK to West Africa, said: "There needs to be a lot more enforcement, but there also needs to be a shake-up of how we handle electronic waste in the UK and our waste needs to be much more closely monitored than it ever has been."

Panorama: Track My Trash, BBC One, Monday, 16 May at 2030BST and then available in the UK on the BBC iPlayer.

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