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Is it all e-waste?

The onward march of electrification and digitalisation is increasing the amount of waste electrical and electronic equipment being produced across the world. This ranges from batteries and energy-saving light bulbs through to computer monitors, TV screens and even fridges, freezers and air-conditioning units.

Ten questions and answers about e-waste in Germany:

What happens to waste electrical and electronic equipment in Europe?
Only 35 per cent, or 3.3 million tonnes, of the waste electrical and electronic equipment (‘WEEE’ or ‘e-waste’ for short) that is generated in Europe finds its way into official collection and recycling systems. The remaining 65 per cent (6.15 million tonnes) is either:

  • exported (1.5 million tonnes)
  • recycled under non-compliant conditions in Europe (3.15 million tonnes)
  • stripped down for reusable materials (750,000 tonnes)
  • disposed of via household waste (750,000 tonnes)

What volumes of e-waste are generated in Germany and Ghana?
In 2019, Germany generated 19.4 kg of e-waste per capita – ten times the figure in Ghana. There too, however, the volume of end-of-life TVs, computers, printers, photocopiers, fridges, air-conditioning units and energy-saving light bulbs is growing year on year.

What role are illegal imports into Ghana from Europe playing in all of this?
Around two thirds of the second-hand appliances and equipment brought into the country are already older by virtue of having been shipped from Europe to Ghana, meaning that they only have a short useful life left. However, 10 to 15 per cent can no longer be repaired or used for spare parts and are stripped down for reusable materials on dumping grounds such as Agbogbloshie.

Is e-waste in Africa a uniquely Ghanaian problem?
Although Ghana and the Old Fadama dumping ground (known to the world as ‘Agbogbloshie’) in Accra have become famous in Germany too thanks to the media, similar activities are also going on in other African countries. However, these are rarely so much in the public eye as they are spread across several towns and cities and are often hidden in people’s back yards.

Does e-waste just contain valuable materials?
E-waste contains a lot of harmful substances that make it harder to recycle. For instance, many plastics will have been treated with flame retardants, while energy-saving light bulbs and fluorescent tubes contain mercury and car batteries sulphuric acid and lead. Cathode-ray tube monitors are particularly problematic because some of the glass inside them is coated with lead and phosphor powder. As there is currently no meaningful way of reusing this lead-coated glass, it has to be disposed of at special landfills. Fridges and freezers pose a further problem, as many of them contain cooling gases that are harmful to the environment and that can escape into the atmosphere if handled incorrectly. Sheaths of electric cables containing insulating materials are also burned away from fridges in order to get at the copper wires inside, releasing toxic dioxins. In addition, the gases contained in a fridge’s cooling circuit and insulating foam are very harmful to the climate.

Does Ghana not have a recycling industry?
Germany has a highly developed recycling industry for disposing of the various forms of e-waste and components, the costs of which are covered in different ways. One key element in this is the responsibility assumed by the manufacturers for ensuring that a product is properly recycled at the end of its useful life – whether it is a button cell battery or a huge fridge. In Ghana, an industry of this kind is virtually non-existent: companies that want to comply with the applicable environmental and social standards simply cannot compete with the people who recycle e-waste on an informal basis.

Isn’t it desirable for used equipment to get a second lease of life in Africa?
From a resource efficiency perspective, it makes sense to use products for as long as possible. The same goes for e-waste, some of which contains rare and thus valuable metals. In this respect, it does not really matter where this continued use actually takes place. However, there is a problem if a country like Ghana lacks the infrastructure and logistics to reuse or recycle these products properly and they are instead stripped down in the open air in a way that is harmful to both the environment and people’s health. Important secondary raw materials are lost rather than being reused – with more technologically sophisticated processes, they could be fed back into the material cycle.

Isn’t it a good thing that young people in Ghana can earn money recycling e-waste?
Collecting and recycling e-waste is a major source of income for poor, low-skilled adults and young people from northern Ghana. The country is also home to many mechanics and businesses that specialise in repairing faulty electrical equipment and thus help to extend its useful life. This means that less wealthy people as well as schools can also afford things like computers and TVs. However, these young people are damaging both their own health and that of the people who live and work in the local area by failing to recycle e-waste properly.

What are the consequences for the environment?
Unless e-waste is recycled in the correct way, heavy metals including lead, mercury, chromium and nickel as well as pollutants such as dioxins get into the soil, groundwater, rivers and seas, causing significant damage. During heavy rainfall, these substances are also washed into the groundwater as well as into the watercourses running adjacent to Agbogbloshie. From here, they reach the sea – where fishing takes place. They also get into food through cattle, goats and chickens that run freely across the site as well as through marine animals.
The German media has regularly reported on the illegal disposal in Ghana of WEEE that originated in Germany. And, even though much of the e-waste generated in countries like Ghana is now actually produced there, the problem nevertheless serves as a striking example of the global links between production and consumption patterns in Germany.

Where does e-waste belong in Germany?
Consumers are required to dispose of their old electrical and electronic equipment separately from their household waste by dropping it off for free at a municipal collection point, for instance. Alternatively, they can make use of a returns scheme offered by the manufacturer or retailer. The German Federal Environment Agency can provide more information on the topic.

  • Single-use and rechargeable batteries contain hazardous substances including cadmium, mercury, lead and lithium and must not be thrown in the bin. Instead, they have to be returned to a retailer. Shops that sell batteries are obliged to take back flat ones. More information on recycling batteries in Germany(German only) …
  • Energy-saving and LED light bulbs as well as fluorescent tubes can be handed to a ‘Schadstoffmobil’ collection vehicle for hazardous waste or taken to a store. The Lightcycle scheme provides over 9,000 drop-off points across

The Spiegel-Online article The e-waste republic ( German only) by Jacopo Ottaviani/Isacco Chiaf provides a good overview of Ghana’s e-waste market.

The documentary A toxic business – The e-waste scandal by Cosima Dannoritzer is also well worth a watch. You can find a brief introduction here.


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