Exporting E-Junk

Discarded government computers land in countries looking for high-tech hand-me-downs.

Memo to a former World Bank employee in Washington: Someone found your old computer in a dump in Nigeria and read the contents of its hard drive.

Your curriculum vitae from Harvard University, where you studied for a master's degree in public policy; the address and phone number of the place you house-sat during your summer in the nation's capital in 1998; templates of World Bank documents and situation reports on Thailand and other developing nations; and the 139 private, sometimes explicit, e-mails you sent to friends and family back home in Australia. It's all there.

And some of it shows up in "Digital Dump: Exporting Re-use and Abuse to Africa," an October 2005 report by the Basel Action Network in Seattle. Accompanying your correspondence-fortunately for you, the juicy details are redacted-is this understatement: "One can learn a lot about her and other people."

Author and BAN activist Jim Puckett says the data-snooping exercise was less about privacy and more about exposing which governments are looking the other way as the industrialized world exports tons of discarded electronics to poor countries with lax environmental regulations and a hunger for higher technology. The World Bank is under U.S. management. "Every part of the world I've been to so far, I've found U.S. government [ID] tags," Puckett says.

BAN takes its name from the 1989 Basel Convention, a United Nations treaty that aims to control international movements and disposal of hazardous waste. The environmental group works with nongovernmental organizations around the globe in a campaign against what it calls the "toxic trade" of electronic waste.

"In Africa, it was all about finding equipment they could reuse and repair and get secondhand entry into the information age," says Puckett. He spent 10 days last August and September poking around warehouses and unregulated dumps in the Nigerian port of Lagos, taking pictures of identifying labels called asset tags and salvaging hard drives. Puckett did this previously in China, where he says he found an Internal Revenue Service tag and "a huge pile" of computers belonging to the Defense Logistics Agency. In Lagos, five of the 88 items he examined were identifiable as federal property. The report lists three pieces from unnamed agencies and a computer and monitor from the Army Corps of Engineers headquarters in Washington. The Army didn't respond to a request for information about its computer disposal process.

Importation of hand-me-down equipment fuels much of the IT sector growth in poor countries. According to BAN, Nigeria receives 400,000 scrapped computers and monitors every month from brokers and businesses. Almost half the shipments are from the United States, the only industrialized nation that hasn't ratified the Basel treaty. As much as 75 percent of the equipment hasn't been stripped of lead and other metals, making it illegal to export under the Basel Convention.

"Digital Dump" caught the attention of the Government Accountability Office. It's quoted in a November report (GAO-06-47) echoing BAN's complaint that the United States is passing the toxic buck. The report details economic and regulatory factors that discourage electronics recycling among consumers and notes that even government agencies have little incentive because participation is not required. The Environmental Protection Agency's Federal Electronics Challenge is designed to leverage government purchasing power to obtain computers and monitors that last longer and contain less toxic substances, making them cheaper to recycle. But according to GAO, only 61 of the thousands of agencies are participating, and only five are meeting the product management criteria. The only participant to document cost savings: the Bonneville Power Administration. The report observes, "This falls short of EPA's goal that the federal government 'lead by example.' "

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