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EU learns a lesson about chemical waste

Court rules that it's not OK for European companies to dump waste in the developing world.

DanWatch researchers have found pieces of old computers on waste piles in Ghana clearly labeled with stickers from Danish companies, schools and government ministries.

In a documentary made by the group, environmental journalist Mike Anane confirmed most of the tons of electronic trash comes from the U.S. and Europe, much of it “under the guise of donations.” 

“When you examine the items, they don’t work,” Anane said. “So one would wonder why somebody would want to ‘donate’ items that don’t work if it’s not dumping. It’s just a way to get rid of these computers from Europe to Africa.”

DanWatch is currently working on a new assessment of the levels of that kind of European “benevolence.”

Maren Swart is in Accra, Ghana, polling shop owners about the source of the decrepit computers they are selling as second-hand items.

“I’ve been in two shops today and both said they came from Europe,” she said Thursday in a telephone interview as she drove through the Ghanaian capital. On Friday Swart reported she'd found computers clearly marked as coming from the U.S. government, the Senate and the Department of Justice all in one store. She’s trying to get access to the harbor to look at incoming shipments of what she expects will be more such items, but authorities have thus far refused.

Swart explained that DanWatch wasn’t necessarily telling conscientious Europeans to quit sending gently used electronic goods to developing nations, which can in fact benefit the populations in many ways. What Swart and her organization want is for the ships that bring in this tonnage of dubious usefulness should also take back the same amount of broken, unsalvageable items so it can be dismantled in safe European facilities.

“You think you’re doing something right, but you aren’t!” she chided well-meaning donors.

Another option, she suggested, would be to donate money and expertise to help developing countries set up their own higher-tech facilities.

Swart fears it will be a long time before any of the measures being taken in Brussels are felt in Accra. That seems realistic given the goal stated by former Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas when pledging to step up enforcement of existing waste laws “to deliver the maximum benefits for citizens, the environment and the EU economy."