Environmental Justice – Illegal Shipment of E-Waste from Global North Countries

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We all know that E-waste is toxic to the environment. Although E-waste disposal is a global problem, it differs between the global north and global south countries. Global north countries often ship their waste to global south countries (often illegally), causing high environmental and health impacts.

Why do Global North Countries export their E-waste?

According to a study conducted by the Environmental Science and Technology journal, the global north ships about 23% of their electronic waste annually because of their high recycling costs. In global north countries, the recycling process of E-waste involves sorting, separating parts such as batteries, shredding, and further sorting, adhering to strict health and safety rules which takes high operational costs in the recycling plant. Whereas the recycling process in the global south does not follow any formal health and safety rules, and the recycling costs are relatively cheaper.

The Basel Convention created by the United Nations is an international treaty that prevents the transportation of hazardous waste from developed countries to developing countries. However, countries such as the US did not ratify the Basel Convention. Although the United States has EPA regulations that limit e-waste from being shipped, there are still loopholes in the policy that are taken advantage of.

E-waste burning in India
E-waste burning in India, Source: Thewire

Corrupt governments, mismanagement of waste, and weak environmental policies in the global south facilitate receiving the shipment and make them dumping grounds for e-waste. Furthermore, for a living- families, and laborers rely on precious metals extracted from the e-waste. These elements include lithium, cobalt, platinum, palladium, platinum, gold, and silver. Sadly, putting food on the table shifts these families from paying attention to the environmental effects and their own health.

Top Countries that shipped high amounts of E-waste to the Global South

1) USA

The United States generates 6918 metric tons of E-waste but recycles only 17.4% of what it generates. Nearly 10 to 40 percent of the E-waste in the United States gets exported to countries such as China, Mexico, Pakistan, and Kenya.

2) The United Kingdom

The United Kingdom generates 1598 metric tonnes of E-waste. According to the report published by the Environment Audit Committee (EAC) in 2020, the UK has been reported as the worst offender in the illegal shipment of E-waste. As per the report, it shipped 209,000 tonnes of E-waste illegally.

3) Ireland

According to the report by United Nations University, 60,000 tons of electronic waste were illegally shipped to Nigeria in 2015 and 2016. Nearly 6% of the e-waste shipped to Nigeria came from Ireland. Despite increasing the collection rate for E-waste in 2020, The country failed to meet the EU collection target of 65%, which came into effect in 2019.

According to the report, “Holes in the Circular Economy-WEEE Leakage from Europe,” nearly 352,474 tonnes of E-waste gets shipped to the global south annually.

Global South countries that are highly affected by E-waste shipment

1) Guiyu, China

2) Agbogbloshie, Ghana

3) India

4) Pakistan

5) Vietnam

6) Philippines

How Components of E-Waste Affect the Environment

Because of the informal treatment of E-waste in developing countries, such as burning and dumping in open landfills, toxins are generated and pollute the environment. The following table explains the environmental effects caused by the chemicals from E-waste.

Chemicals in E-WasteEnvironmental Effects
LeadLoss of Biodiversity
ChlorofluorocarbonsCould deplete the ozone layer and cause global warming
CadmiumCan affect crops, animals and it is a carcinogen
BariumCan persist for a long time in the environment
LithiumDamage to the ecosystem and contribution to global warming

Based on the study conducted by the toxic link at the E-waste recycling sites in India, high metal concentrations of mercury, nickel, and lead were found in the soil and water at the sampling sites. Some parts of Guiyu, which was the largest E-waste site, after being affected by improper e-waste disposal, still remain contaminated despite the efforts of clean up.

Unlike humans, Nature knows no boundaries – illegally shipped E-waste affects the whole earth by causing global warming. Global north countries must increase their recycling rates within their own country and make strong policies to prevent their E-waste from getting shipped. Consumers should also take steps to reduce E-waste from the source and demand transparent recycling policies.


Featured Image Source: Ricardo Levins Morales

Environmental Science & Technology Journal. (2014). Tracking the Global generation and exports of E-waste. Do existing estimates add up?. https://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es5021313

Earth911. (October 11, 2021). 20 Staggering E-waste facts in 2021 [Infographic]. https://earth911.com/eco-tech/20-e-waste-facts/

Parliament UK. (November 26, 2020). Electronic Waste and Circular Economy. https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm5801/cmselect/cmenvaud/220/22002.htm

Basel Action Network. (2018). Holes in the Circular Economy: WEEE Leakage from Europe [PDF]. https://wiki.ban.org/images/f/f4/Holes_in_the_Circular_Economy-_WEEE_Leakage_from_Europe.pdf

United Nations University. (N.d.). Assessing Import of used electrical and electronic equipment into Nigeria: Person in the Port Project [PDF]. http://collections.unu.edu/eserv/UNU:6349/PiP_Report.pdf

The LANCET Planetary Health. (December 2021). Health Consequences of exposure to E-waste: An Updated Systematic Review. https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanplh/article/PIIS2542-5196(21)00263-1/fulltext

About Post Author

Yazhini Srinivasan

Yazhini Srinivasan is an International Student at Fleming College. She is currently doing her Post Graduate Certification in Sustainable Waste Management after completing her Bachelor's degree in Civil Engineering. She is highly passionate about waste diversion methodologies and finding solutions to climate change.
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