Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Environment: The dark side of digital waste

As if there wasn’t enough litter in the world to trouble us, now we are threatened by specific forms of waste; one being e-waste or electronic waste. 

So, what is e-waste? E-waste can best be described as “all electrical or electronic devices such as computers, entertainment devices, mobile phones, television sets and refrigerators or their components, which are sold, obsolete, broken or discarded by their original owners.”

Repair and reuse of computers and televisions is a thing of the past in developed countries; today they prefer replacement over repair. Therefore according to estimates, between 20-50 million tons of e-waste is produced every year.

All this e-waste has to be either recycled or properly disposed off. For recycling, the equipment is usually dismantled, and various parts (metal frames, power supplies, circuit boards, plastics) separated; this is often done by hand in order to save working and repairable parts. The unusable parts are sent to incinerators or ends up in landfills.

As recycling and disposal of e-waste involves significant risk to workers and the environment, health and environmental problems are caused because electronic equipment contains toxic and carcinogenic substances like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB) such as copper, lead, zinc, gold, iron, thallium etc. which are persistent organic pollutants and can cause birth defects. The Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) present in computer monitors and TV contains lead. Other toxic metals include cadmium, a known carcinogen and mercury, a toxic substance that can lead to neurological disorders. Many of the plastics used also contain flame retardants.

Due to risks to human health and environmental concerns, disposal and recycling of e-waste is governed by strict regulations in developed countries. They also often import their e-waste to developing countries where environmental laws neither exist nor followed. For many western countries, it is cheaper to ship waste than pay for its environmentally friendly disposal and e-waste finds its way to poor African or Asian countries such as Kenya, China and India.

Due to unsafe processing practices, in developing countries e-waste causes serious health and environmental problems. Computers and other electronic items are routinely dismantled without any protective measures. A common method is to simply toss the equipment onto open fire, in order to melt plastics and to burn away inexpensive metals. This pollutes the atmosphere by releasing various carcinogens and neurotoxins, contributing to an acrid, lingering smog. This leads to allergic manifestation and various skin and respiratory tract disorders. The refuse is then disposed off into drainage ditches or waterways feeding the ocean or local water supplies. 

Sometimes the whole equipment is simply tossed in landfills but it too is a bad solution because over time, heavy metals like lead, copper and mercury contained in them can leech into the ground and contaminate the soil and groundwater causing serious illnesses.

Pakistan, too, is increasingly becoming a dumping ground for a host of obsolete computers and its accessories which are shipped to the country under the pretext of ‘second-hand machinery’. The traders who are a party to this unethical practice use the pretext of facilitating computer literacy in the country and make millions through these deals. But as a major percentage of the imported consignment is obsolete or beyond repair, after removing usable parts the bulk is sent to the recycling industry or just discarded. 

Few laws appear to be in place to check this dangerous practice. Pakistan is a signatory to the Basel Convention, which monitors the movement of hazardous waste. However, the importers and exporters take advantage of the lacuna — the convention becomes flexible when goods are to be used for the same purpose, i.e. old computers are to be used as second-hand machines.

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