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Date: 2010-02-02 05:44:25
The menace of electronic waste




                      ---ICCON NEWS



Introduction

The Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary (6th Edition) defines waste as “materials that are no longer needed and are thrown away.” Hence, wastes can be generated from both domestic and industrial sources as a result of human activities. That wastes are bound to be generated as long as Man treads the Earth is a non-issue. The issue rather is that the wastes, if not well managed, can pose serious health hazards to both human beings and the environment. This little write-up examines the menace posed to Man and his environment by waste from electrical and electronic sources.

Electronic waste (or e-waste) includes all types of obsolete, discarded or unwanted electronic equipment. It has become conventional to classify such waste as “WEEE” (i.e. Wastes from Electrical and Electronic Equipment). One school of thought defines WEEE as “a waste type consisting of any broken or unwanted electrical or electronic device”, while another classifies WEEE in terms of “all discarded products that have an electrical cable or battery.” Thus computers, cell phones, radio sets, refrigerators etc constitute WEEE. These items produce complicated multi-materials wastes with different proportions of metals, plastics and glass. They can be polluting if they are not adequately treated before disposal.

There is a convention that seeks to differentiate between recyclable and non-recyclable discarded electronic devices. Recyclable e-waste is sometimes further categorized as “commodity” while e-waste which cannot be re-used is distinguished as “waste”. Both types of e-waste have raised concern considering that many components of such equipment are considered toxic and are not biodegradable. However, debate continues over the distinction between “commodity” and “waste” electronics definitions. For instance, some exporters may deliberately leave obsolete or non-working equipment mixed in consignments of working equipment.

This little write-up, though by no means exhaustive, seeks to examine current trends in electronic waste globally, the potential danger to developing countries, especially Nigeria, and suggest possible management measures, especially in view of the fact that the developing world is the recipient of a huge chunk of e-waste sourced from the developed world.

 

TRENDS IN GLOBAL ELECTRONIC WASTE

It would be recalled that the danger posed to human health and the environment by electronic waste in recent times is eliciting global concern. For instance, statistics from a survey by John S. Shegerian, writing in the U.S. – based “San Diego Tribune” in December 2005 reveal that more than 40 percent of heavy metals, including lead, mercury and cadmium in landfills come from electronic equipment discards [1]. The significance of this trend can be better appreciated when viewed against the frightening reality that just one-seventieth of a teaspoon of mercury can contaminate 20 water acres of a lake, making the fish unfit to eat!

The tragedy of this development for Third World countries like Nigeria is that currently, up to 80 percent of this electronic waste (e.g. generated in the United States) meant for recycling is quietly exported to other countries. According to the source, computers, radios and television sets are dismantled in a crude fashion by child and adult labourers likely unaware of the hazardous toxins with which they are working. Some of the listed prominent recipient countries include “India, Pakistan and, especially, China – where environmental restrictions are lax and economies poor.”[1]

Though the above listing did not specifically name Nigeria, there is no gainsaying the fact that the Nigerian electronics market is flooded with products sourced from China. The turnover rate of wastes from these gadgets and the consequential health hazard effects on human life and the environment caused (especially on the soil) cannot be over-emphasized.

Currently, many e-waste firms remove the valuable metals from equipment and send the remaining scrap to landfills or incinerators. Without adequate protections, workers dismantling discarded electronic equipment are exposed to many chemicals and their negative health effects.

In a similar development, two studies commissioned by the Canadian environment group, “Environment Canada” in 2003 reveal that disposed computer equipment, phones, audio-visual equipment and small household appliances account for more than 140,000 tonnes (or 4.5kg per capita) of waste each year in Canada [2]. The study highlighted the fact that exposure to high levels of lead, cadmium and mercury in the environment has been linked to adverse effects on human health and wildlife. These include subtle neurobehavioral effects for lead, chronic kidney damage for cadmium, and sensory or neurological impairments for mercury. This is corroborated by the information in the “San Diego Tribune” which estimated that more than 350 million computers in the United States will soon become obsolete and are, currently, the fastest growing portion of the U.S. waste stream.

 

Some Fast Facts on E-Waste

• More than 140,000 tonnes of computer equipment, phones, television sets, stereos, and small home appliances accumulate in Canadian landfills each year. That is equivalent to the weight of about 28,000 adult African elephants or enough uncrushed electronic waste to fill up the Toronto Skydome every 15 years [2]
• An estimated 4,750 tonnes of lead is contained in personal computers and television sets disposed each year in Canada [2]
• The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) estimates that, as at the end of 2007, about three billion people own GSM handsets worldwide. This naturally translates into a high rate of disposal of handsets
• By 2005, yearly disposal figures for personal computers alone is estimated to contain 4.5 tonnes of cadmium and 1.1 tonnes of mercury [2]
• Electronics contain valuable resources which can be recovered (and recycled) if e-waste if properly managed. Such resources include ferrous metals, aluminum, and copper. In 1999, it was estimated that disposed personal computers alone contained 4,400 tonnes of ferrous metal, 3,050 tonnes of aluminum and 1,500 tonnes of copper [2].

 


E-WASTE MANAGEMENT AROUND THE WORLD
 
Conscious of the danger posed to both human beings and the environment by electronic waste, some developed countries are already taking measures to manage the trend. In the 1990s, some European countries banned the disposal of electronic waste in landfills. According to “Wikipedia”, the online encyclopedia, this has created an e-waste processing industry in Europe [3].
 
In Switzerland for instance, the first electronic waste recycling system was implemented in 1991 beginning with collection of old refrigerators. Over the years, all other electric and electronic devices were gradually added to the system. Legislation followed in 1998 and since January 2005 it has been possible to return all electronic waste to sales points and other collection points free of charge. There are two established PROs (Producer Responsibility Organizations): SWICO mainly handling electronic waste and SENS mainly responsible for that of electrical appliances. The total amount of recycled electronic waste exceeds 10kg per capita per year.

The European Union further advanced the e-waste policy in Europe by implementing the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive in 2002 which holds manufacturers responsible for e-waste disposal at end-of-life.

In the United States, e-waste legislation is limited to the state level due to stalled efforts in the United States Congress regarding multiple e-waste legislation bills [3]. Nevertheless, concerted efforts are being made to curtail the improper disposal of e-waste. For instance, some recycling companies now guarantee in writing that the items dropped off will not be sent abroad for dismantling. This is a start and these companies are not alone. The Seattle-based Basel Action Network and The Human Rights Watch, for instance, run programmes to eliminate this trade [1].

In Canada, several major brandowners of electronic products have identified that they are committed to developing, financing and administering a nationwide programme to divert e-waste from disposal by ensuring that it is properly recycled. This concept, commonly referred to as Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), places the onus on producers to properly manage their products at the post-consumer stage. EPR has rapidly gained much popularity, both in Canada and other parts of the world, because it has a potential to stimulate producers to design longer-lasting, less hazardous, and more recyclable products.

Sadly enough, there is little or nothing to report about e-waste management in most parts of the developing world, especially in Africa and Asia where economies are poor and environmental laws lax. And it behoves on all stakeholders in the under-developed regions of the world (both governmental and non-governmental organizations alike) to wake up to this trend which is a looming time-bomb on both Man and his environment.

In Lagos, Nigeria for example, a visit to a typical electronics market (especially those dealing with second-handed varieties popularly known as “tokunboh”) leaves much to be desired. All manner of electronics junk are massively imported and dismantled with BARE HANDS, sometimes by under-aged apprentices aged between 10 and 15 years! There is no gainsaying the fact that these “businessmen” are most probably unaware of the fact that they are hastening their own end!

 

CONCLUSION / RECOMMENDATION  

In the light of the fore-going, the position of the ICCON Governing Council on the issue of electronic waste is not only justified but timely, especially in view of the fact that Nigeria has become a dumping ground for all forms of scraps and discarded electronic devices (see article titled “ICCON Tasks FG” somewhere in this edition). Also of interest is the fact that most Nigerians involved in the handling or dismantling of these devices are probably unaware of the risky nature of their business routines. This also highlights the need for massive enlightenment campaigns by both the government and stakeholders, especially regulatory bodies like ICCON, the Standards Organization of Nigeria (SON), environmental protection agencies and non-governmental organizations.

As the Federal Government vigorously pursues its seven-point agenda as well as the laudable “Vision 2020” project, it is pertinent that it spares some thought for the concept of environmental sustainability. Government programmes, no matter how laudable, can only be appreciated by a healthy citizenry, and in a safe environment. Thus, no effort should be spared in tackling the threat posed by e-waste.

An obvious first step in this direction is the enactment of relevant laws restricting the indiscriminate importation of “scrap” electronic gadgets into the country. Then the relevant stakeholders (like the aforementioned regulatory bodies) should be statutorily mandated to draw up a joint committee formed from within their membership or staff; and this committee should not only advice Government, but should also be empowered to carry out inspectorate activities with a view to recommending appropriate punitive sanctions where necessary.

It may also be necessary for the Nigerian Government to liaise with its foreign (especially Western) counterparts, and even some brandowners of the imported devices, with a view to fashioning out modalities to stem the menace of e-waste. This is indeed a matter of urgent national importance!

In conclusion, it is an incontestable fact that the environment is mankind’s most treasured heritage. Its sustenance is, thus, a top priority, in the interest of the present generation, for generations yet unborn as well as for history and posterity. The time to act is NOW. 


 
REFERENCES

1. “San Diego Union Tribune” Newspaper, December 21, 2005. (Website: www.signonsandiego.com/uniontrib/20051221/news)
2. “Environment Canada”, a Toronto, Canada-based environmental advocacy organization. (Website: www.ec.gc.ca/envirozine/english/issues/33/feature1)
3. “Wikipedia”, the online encyclopedia. (Website: www.wikipedia.org/wiki/E-waste)
 

 

 
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