The e-waste basket of the region . . . the good, the bad, and the ugly (side of e-waste)
. . . throw-away culture choking city
By Patrick Musira : Use of electronic devices has proliferated in recent years due to the digital revolution that has not only brought lots of good to society but has to a large extent made our lives easier, happier and simpler.
Unfortunately, the quantity of these electronic devices and gadgets that are disposed of, is growing rapidly throughout the country, and carrying along unwelcome baggage as well.
Much of this electric and electronic equipment (EEE) – imported especially from the Far East – through a strange twist of global economics, ends up as e-waste and electronic junk finding a place “to die” here in Zimbabwe.
Electronic waste, commonly known as e-waste, is the popular name given to electronic products nearing or at the end of its useful life. E-waste, in short, is the generic term embracing various forms of EEE equipment that have ceased to be of any value to their owners. In short, e-waste has been defined as “a broad and growing range of electronic devices ranging from large household devices such as refrigerators, air conditions, cell phones, personal stereos, and consumer electronics to computers which have been discarded by their users” that are past their useful lives.
According to electronic equipment and environmental conservation experts, over the past two decades, the global market of EEE continues to grow exponentially, while the life span of those products becomes shorter and shorter. “One of our problems is the insatiable appetite to own the latest gadget,” says an officer at Qrent, an ICT company.
“Predictably, the number of electrical devices will continue to increase on the global scale, and microprocessors will be used in ever increasing numbers in daily objects”. Engineer Fred Gweme, director of Informatics Institute, the Scientific, Industrial Research and Development, says “we must sympathise with our cities today and also need to make sure we know what’s going on around here!”
“Most of our imported e-gadgets are already e-waste before they get there! Remember, we are living in a throw-away society,” he says, explaining: “We even import desktop computers that we know will be out of circulation in a few years’ time. Their life cycle is coming to an end!” For the past decade, Zimbabwe has been a major hub for the disposal of e-waste from all over the world – Hong Kong, Singapore, Europe, China and the United States – and it has been an emerging problem given the volumes of e-waste being generated and the content of both toxic and valuable materials in them.
Professor Sara Feresu, director of the University of Zimbabwe’s Institute of Environmental Studies (IES) concurs, saying: “Rapid economic growth, coupled with urbanization and a growing demand for consumer goods, has increased both the consumption and the production of EEE.”
Making a presentation during the recently ended e-waste conference in the capital, Prof Feresu said that this new kind of waste is posing a serious challenge in disposal and recycling to both developed and developing countries and Zimbabwe’s recycling sector can be called primitive. The dumping of e-waste, particularly computer waste, has now made e-waste management an issue of environment and health concern. “With the removal of import duty, it only takes some unscrupulous businessperson to import e waste and dump it in Zimbabwe under the guise of bringing much-needed technology and donations into the country,” she explained.
Eunice Moyo, a researcher from Action, an environment organisation in the Mukuvisi Woodlands, concurs, saying: “The numbers of imported electronic goods into Zimbabwe are increasing and the cost of purchasing (these) is getting lower and lower making them increasingly affordable by everyone, but in general people just take waste as waste and they don’t separate.
“They don’t know the effects of all the types of waste on their lives, health and environment. There are lots of discarded – dead – EEE devices all over the place finding its way into the country,” she adds.
According to Moyo, e-waste is a real problem in that almost everyone has gone digital but no education goes with this revolution in this country, and “no legislation in place to my knowledge”.
“I am not aware of them, I feel that as a country we are overwhelmed by this revolution yet we are neither aware nor prepared at all on issues of e waste management. As the section on policy and legislative issues will show, there is also no legislation on e waste” she says. Several groups of young people here have become experts at dismantling the electronic junk, with ubiquitous street electronic technicians on pavements and outside workshops ripping out the guts of household appliances with screw drivers, pliers, scalpels, and drills.
“We sell these in the light industrial sites in Graniteside,” one of the workers said, referring to the southern side of the capital. “Most of the products people use are made from recycled material – so we take all these things thrown away and re-sell.”
But recycling can be dirty, and dangerous work.
“When recycling is done properly, it’s a good thing for the environment,” says IES’s Prof Feresu during a recent e-waste management presentation. “But when recycling is done in primitive ways, it is hugely devastating for the local environment,” she adds, explaining that Harare suffers from an “environmental calamity” as a result of the wide-scale e-waste disposal industry in the area.
Friends of the Environment (FOTE), a non-governmental organisation based in the capital, says much of the toxic pollution comes from burning circuit boards, plastic and copper wires, or washing them with hydrochloric acid to recover valuable metals like copper.
“In doing so, workshops contaminate workers and the environment with toxic heavy metals like lead, beryllium and cadmium, while also releasing hydrocarbon ashes into the air, water and soil.”
According to Gweme, e-waste has raised concerns because many components in these products are toxic and are not biodegradable. “Based on these concerns, many European countries banned e-waste from landfills long before in the 1990s. Alarming levels of dioxin compounds, linked to cancer, developmental defects, and other health problems in the samples of breast milk, placenta, and hair, these compounds are linked to improper disposal of electronic products,” he says, arguing: “Furthermore, surveys have indicated that much exported, e-waste is disposed of unsafely in developing countries, leaving an environmental and health problem in these regions.” Today’s paradigm is one of disposable electronics, and as a result we now stand at the forefront of a growing environmental catastrophe.
Moving along the capital’s Mukuvisi River, ones notices piles of technological scrap that have been dumped in fields along the river and there, young children can be seen scavenging for broken electronic gadget pieces on heaps of scrap while surrounded by piles of electronic components with labels like Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Epson and Dell. A large amount of e-waste is in fact recyclable. Recycling means lower net carbon emissions. And we are all worried about global warming and its impacts hence the need to be serious about the way we dispose these gadgets.
Electronics contain a sizable amount of lead, cadmium, brominated fire retardants and plastics, which can leach toxic breakdown products. It is essential to keep these toxins out of our environment for a healthy planet.
“If people really understood the negatives of dumping these gadgets all over, they would sort waste at source and dispose accordingly,” continues Moyo.
Moyo says people need education to understand what e-waste is and how it can be reused. When these items are discarded a lot of chemical action and reactions take place hence the potential dangers attached to such disused items.
The young casually stomped through mounds of sheet glass, which clearly had been removed from video monitors, downplaying the potential damage the industry could cause to their health or to the environment.
On being asked on the dangers to their health, two youngsters asked only to use their first names, to protect their identity.
“Of course it isn’t healthy,” said Lucas, a young man who was rapidly sorting plastic shards from devices like computer keyboards, remote controls and even computer mice, adding: “but rather than be involved in criminal activities it allows us at least to put bread on the table”. Several of the youths say that while the work may be dangerous, the danger has been exaggerated.
“There are families that have lived here for generations … and there is little impact on their health,” explains Jameson’s colleague Lucas.
In Zimbabwe, most of the recycling happens in the informal sector where poor people tear apart the different components with their bare hands and without wearing any safety gear. In fact, most people are unaware of the potential negative impact of the rapidly increasing use of computers, monitors, and televisions. When these products are placed in landfills or incinerated, they pose health risks due to the hazardous materials they contain. The improper disposal of electronic products leads to the possibility of damaging the environment.
A report from SIRDC indicates that 50,000 tonnes are being imported every year. The Afro News made several attempts to contact the city council with no success as officials refused to comment on the electronic waste issue and hung up the phone.
However, to avoid a vicious cycle of pollution, resulting from both the manufacture and disposal of appliances, EMA has lobbied for manufacturers to use fewer toxic chemicals in their products. The agency also has a message for consumers who seem to swap their phones, tablets and other computer devices with increasing frequency.
“Think about where your mobile phone or where your gadgets go,” says an official at EMA. “When you think about changing (your phone), or buying a new product, always think about the footprint that you put on this planet.”