How Discarded Computers Are Poisoning Africa's Kids

European Union directives with acronyms like WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) and RoHS (Restriction of Hazardous Substances) followed the Basel Convention, and individual countries have signed them into law. Germany's waste disposal laws are among the world's strictest, and shipping computer waste to Ghana can lead to a prison sentence. In theory.

The German government recently set out to examine how things look in practice. Experts at the German Federal Environment Agency are still completing a paper that will be published in the coming weeks, but the upshot is already clear -- there are serious holes in the country's recycling system. According to the study, export firms in Germany ship 100,000 tons of discarded electrical appliances south each year, far more than experts had feared.

"This is a business worth millions, not something that falls under petty crime," says Knut Sander at the Hamburg-based environmental institute Ökopol. He authored the study, which took him months to research. His investigations landed him warnings that he should watch out for his own safety.

He didn't have to go far from his office to observe the export industry at work. "The Port of Hamburg is important," he explains. "What doesn't leave through Hamburg leaves through Antwerp or Rotterdam."

Entering Hell

Sander traced the small-time dealers who ship a container here and there or a couple of junk cars packed with computers. Sometimes they park by the hundreds at Hamburg's O'Swaldkai terminal, where ships depart forAfrica. There are large enterprises sending toxic cargo as well -- so-called remarketing companies, which collect hundreds of thousands of old appliances a year. These companies are allowed to resell working computers, but required to recycle defective ones. And some of them know very well just how much money they stand to save in Ghana.

The task of stopping this waste export is supposed to fall to a few customs officers and harbor police. But when agents do occasionally open a container, they're more than likely asking for trouble in court. The laws don't define what a scrap computer is, and it's legal to export used computers, just not scrapped ones. A computer that's broken but possibly still fixable -- does that count as scrap? What about one that's 20 years old and can hardly run a single program? When in doubt, judges rule in favor of the exporters.

All Bismarck knows is that the computers all stink, whether they're 10- or 20-years-old and whether they're made by Dell, Apple, IBM or Siemens. When they burn, it makes his head and throat hurt. The gray, gummy ashes settle into every pore and wrinkle, and they itch. Spots appear on his skin, but he knows he can't scratch them because the dust would sting in the open wounds.

From the outset, Bismarck knew he was entering hell. But back then he was a 10-year-old boy, and he imagined hell could also somehow mean adventure. In any case, he didn't have a choice any more than the other children here in Sodom. Most of them came to Accra, the capital, from Ghana's even poorer regions further north.

Bismarck can still remember his village. It's near Techiman, roughly in the middle of the country. There was no electricity there, and the hut walls were made of mud.

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