250 000 t of e-waste per annum! Where must it go?
Technology has catapulted humanity’s development by enhancing our productivity and making life a whole lot easier … but it doesn’t come without its perils! Electronic waste (e-waste) is a lot more dangerous than one could ever imagine …
United States-based Cen Cal Ewaste, a company that offers free recycling solutions to help both businesses and residents to properly recycle electronic equipment, shines some light on the matter: “When you look at a computer or cellphone, it doesn’t appear to be dangerous. Typically, only the outer casing is visible, but it’s what’s inside that poses a threat to the environment, people and animals.”
It adds that electronic products are jam-packed with heavy- and semi-metals, including various chemical compounds that can leak into soil – becoming hazardous along the way. “Lead, mercury, copper, barium, nickel and even arsenic are all present within a variety of electronic products,” states Cen Cal. “When they’re thrown away or placed in landfills, these products often break apart, which can expose the inner workings and those dangerous chemicals and metals.”
According to Cen Cal, 80 percent of the electronics that are bought and used every day aren’t recycled properly! Closer to home things look even more bleak.
Explains Christopher Olver, former contributing editor to Journalist’s Resource (named one of the best free reference websites by the American Library Association): “Information communication technology (ICT) products, such as computers and cellphones, have proliferated throughout the world, and many developing nations are consuming them at an increasing rate.”
This is only half of the story. “As these goods become technologically outdated in wealthier nations, they are often shipped to developing countries for refurbishment, recycling or disposal,” writes Olver. “However, such countries are sometimes ill-equipped to deal with the parts found in many products in an ecologically sound manner.”
To determine the effects of e-waste, the United Nations (UN) examined the ecological and economic impact of electrical and electronics equipment (EEE) recycling, and disposal practices, in five countries in western Africa. The report, entitled: Where are WEee in Africa?, looked at Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Liberia and Nigeria.
Olver quotes from the report: “Seventy percent of all imports, to the five countries, are used EEE, with 30 percent of this being non-functioning EEE.” He says that computers imported from Western countries account for between ten and 70 percent of all ICT in these nations.
“Despite strict regulations governing the trade of damaged ICT, 30 to 50 percent of these items make their way to the western part of Africa,” Olver points out. “Close to half of the items are repaired, while the rest are recycled or discarded.”
Nigeria reportedly leads the region in e-waste volume, generating approximately 1,1 million tonnes annually.
As for the exporting countries, the report states that the United Kingdom (UK) leads the pack, followed (with large gaps in between) by France and Germany … “In the case of television receivers and monitors, it is apparent that German exports are rising sharply, while UK exports are declining,” relates Where are WEee in Africa? “Both countries provide nearly 100 percent of the television and monitor exports to western Africa.”
Nearly all of the region’s e-waste ends up being processed by a largely unregulated, informal recycling industry. “Recycling activities often take place on unfortified ground where harmful substances released during dismantling are discharged directly into the soil,” states the UN.
“Burning copper cables and wires, as well as monitor and TV casings, creates an accumulation of ash and partially burned materials at the burning sites,” the international organisation points out.
“Insulating foam from dismantled refrigerators (primarily polyurethane containing chlorofluorocarbon (CFC)), or old car tyres are often used as the main fuels for the fires … contributing to acute chemical hazards and long-term contamination at the burning sites, as well as emitting ozone-depleting substances and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.”
Olver adds that workers in the western African scrap metal and recycling industry have to contend with health risks ranging from cuts to spinal injuries and respiratory illnesses – all for a daily wage below the international poverty line … (around R10 a day).
The report’s authors conclude: “Altogether it is roughly estimated that during the past few years, at least 250 000 t of e-waste per annum ‘illegally’ entered the ports of the five selected western African countries … This is comparable to the total amount of e-waste generated in small European countries such as Belgium or The Netherlands, and equates to approximately five percent of all e-waste generated in the European Union.”
Africa is certainly climbing the technological ladder. Over the last decade, the penetration rate of personal computers in western African countries has increased tenfold, and the number of mobile phone subscribers has increased one hundredfold …
E-waste definitely needs to be addressed while it is still a “small” problem, as development without sustainability isn’t much development at all!