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Digital Dumping and the Global ‘E-Cycling’ Scam

Gbemisola Olujobi

The next time you get a scam mail from Nigeria, don't ask me how the scammer got your information, especially if you don't know where your old PC is. Yes, the one you gave to a recycler or dropped off with a charity for a tax deduction after "erasing" your data. It turns out that erasing data or reformatting your hard disk does not completely eliminate data. 

The Basel Action Network (BAN), a group that monitors the movement of electronic waste around the world, gathered hard-drive memory devices from old computers exported to Nigeria and had them analyzed by forensic data recovery experts. What did it find? It found personal e-mail correspondence, country reports, business letters, banking information, databases, personal letters discussing private legal matters, resumés, disciplinary letters and other cans of worms-all from computers that have been discarded by their owners.

BAN attests that "while many people assume that recyclers will clean their hard drives of data before sending them to reuse facilities, many of the hard drives recovered from computers in Lagos contained a great deal of confidential information."

About 20 million computers are discarded in the United States annually. The federal government alone disposes of 10,000 computers weekly. The advent of flat-screen monitors and digital technology in televisions and advancements in practically every type of consumer electronics device certainly translates into an increase in e-waste generation.

And have you ever wondered where the discarded equipment goes? "We may think we are doing the right thing by giving our old electronics to a recycler or a free collection event," says Sarah Westerville, BAN's e-Stewardship program director. "But many of those businesses calling themselves recyclers are little more than international waste distributors. They take your electronic items for free, or pocket your recycling fee, and then simply load them onto a sea-going container, and ship them to China, India or Nigeria."

About 500 40-foot shipping containers arrive at the port of Lagos in Nigeria every month loaded with old equipment. It is estimated that there are about 400,000 computers among this assortment of electronics. However, only 25 percent of them are reusable or repairable. As in most African countries, there is no waste management, collection or recycling program in Nigeria. What becomes of the unusable and unrepairable electronics is better left to the imagination.

The Basel Action Network investigated Nigeria's e-waste situation and detailed its findings in a shocking report. "We saw people using e-waste to fill in swamps. Whenever the piles got too high, they would torch them. Residents complained about breathing the fumes. We saw kids roaming barefoot over this material, not to mention chicken and goats, which wind up in the local diet."

According to the report, materials at the dump are a dangerous mix of toxic ash, broken CRT glass, dead animals, medical wastes, used chemical containers and food scraps, which creates conditions for contamination and infection.

BAN investigators attest that Lagos residents complain that they constantly breathe in fumes from these fires. Most of them do not know that they are faced with any danger from inhaling these highly hazardous emissions of brominated and chlorinated dioxins, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and heavy metal emissions.

BAN warns that as gruesome as the findings are, they may represent only the tip of the iceberg. Because there is virtually no data concerning the global e-waste trade, the components of e-waste are usually shrouded in mystery. So no one knows for sure what else may be in the mix.

This article is available in its entirety at, where it originally appeared.

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A journalist since 1984, Gbemisola Olujobi is the former Editor of the Living Section at The Guardian, Nigeria’s biggest and most influential newspaper. The bulk of her work as a journalist has been in the area of women’s rights as human rights.

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