Penalties handed down in WEEE export trial

Penalties handed down in WEEE export trial

By Editorial Staff, Resource Recycling

Penalties have been handed down in the case involving the largest criminal network ever uncovered by the U.K. Environment Agency.

A total of 220,000 GBP ($354,266) in fines have been levied on eight individuals and three companies in connection with an electronic waste trafficking scam. The individuals and companies in question illegally exported 496 tons of scrap televisions, refrigerators, computers and other electronics, to Ghana, Nigeria and Pakistan, all while telling customers the items were being refurbished or recycled responsibly. Separate convictions for five individuals and three companies were handed down in connection with the allegations in November, 2011. Additionally, two defendants are awaiting sentencing and a third is still at large.

"This has been a long and complex investigation to bring to book criminals who have flouted the law, risking people's health in developing countries and undercutting legitimate recycling businesses in the U.K.," said Jeff Warburton, an investigator working on the case. "Working in partnership with the authorities in Nigeria and Belgium, we have successfully stopped these illegal exporters. But we won't stop there – we will continue to track down environmental criminals."

The penalties are the result of a three-year investigation by the Environment Agency and a legal process that has been ongoing since October 2010.

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Exporters were innocent of pollution

This case was decided on the rules of EU WEEE contracts.   Nigerian Joseph Benson (BJ Electronics) and others involved in the case were originally accused (2009) of exporting a majority of obsolete units (one NGO even claimed to the papers to know that 50% of the working units were actually being burned at Agbogbloshie, a "claim" never investigated by the journalist).  

These cases were seminal to the UNEP's 2 year investigation of exports, including Benson's, to Lagos and Accra, which found that 70% of all sales were used (most Africans cannot afford new), that 85%-90% (two different figures in the report) of the used goods were reused, and that the retailers typically accept back (takeback) junk brought in buy consumers.  

The report, profiled in Science News and other mainstream press last spring, said that the vast majority of what was being burned or dismantled by "scrap boys" in Nigeria and Ghana was generated by Africans, the same as e-waste found at our landfills in the USA is generated by Americans (not considered "e-waste imported from Japan and China").   Benson and others who appealed their cases should be considered as much exonerated as convicted, in that the final fines (Benson was around $23,000) were not based on pollution resulting from their sales.   In the same way an export of working product under CA SB20 is a "crime" under CA contracts, the group was found to violate EU and UK rules, but those rules were written based on the false and defamatory statistic of "80% primitive" operations circulated about Ghana and Nigerian businesspeople in the first place.  The report also validated previous studies, notably by Williams/Kahhat and the 2007 report in Kenya by Kiaka and Kamande (with "guidance by Jim Puckett") which reported "5-10% of imports to be "faulty". 

Without rationalizing risks or worst practices, the final verdict is as much against "watchdog" as it is against "convicted".  The EU and CA set up rules based on the mostly false premise that buyers were burning most of the exported material.  The exporters were found NOT to be burning the exported material, but were in violation of rules against exporting based on that wrong premise.  The outcome of the rules was to reduce the number of willing sellers, which by all accounts reduced the quality of goods available for export.  This should not be reported as a triumph of environmental policy, it is at best collateral damage involving geeks of color.