Walter Mswazie Features Correspondent
On the back of technological advancement, the world is now grappling with the challenge of e-waste with developing nations sitting on a time bomb, as no tangible policies have been put in place to control its disposal.
The rapid spread of electrical and electronic equipment has attracted public attention, both on the positive side and negative effects of bad management of e-waste vis-a-vis the environment and human health.
Available information shows that Ghana accounts for mountains of hazardous waste weighing about 40 million tonnes every year.
The waste, mostly from Europe and North America, is burned, albeit in a hazardous effort to recover valuable metals.
A researcher at the University of Ghana, Mr Atiemo Sampson said: “Poor people in Africa cannot afford to process Europe’s electronic waste. That waste is poisoning our children.”
Mr Sampson, a PhD student, was involved in testing the school and other areas where more than 100 people were breaking and burning electronic junk to obtain valuable metals like copper.
In pursuance to this, about 50 organisations that include partners in the industry, country representatives, academia and non-governmental organisations, came up with an initiative called STEP-Solution to E-waste Problem.
The main objectives behind STEP are to optimise the life cycle of electrical and electronic equipment by improving supply chains and reducing contamination.
It also seeks to promote re-use of the electrical devices in place of disposing them, exercising the disparities such as the digital divide between the industrialising and industrialised nations as well as increasing scientific public knowledge on e-waste.
STEP culminated from a research conducted in 2003 at United Nations universities (UNU) to find the relationship between electronic devices, especially computers and the environment.
This led to the publication of a book project called, Computers and Environment 2003. The concept is the brain child of Klaus Hieronymi (Hewlett Packard), Eric Williams (UNU) and Axel Schneider (PT PLUS) and it is premised on empirical evaluation and integrates a comprehensive view of the social and environmental and economic aspects of e-waste.
STEP discourages illegal activities related to e-waste including illegal importation and reuse or recycling practices that are hazardous to human health and environment.
It seeks to promote safe and eco-and energy-efficient, re-use and re-cycling practices around the globe in a socially responsible manner.
In its 2010-2014 strategic plan, the ministry of Ministry of Information Communication Technology and Cyber Security set a target to increase national tele-density by 10 percent.
This means the country experienced an upsurge in the use of computers, cellular phones and other electronic gadgets.
According to a 2009 position paper on ICTs and women development presented by Margaret Zunguze of E-knowledge for Women in Southern Africa (Ecowiza), while the problem of e-waste in Zimbabwe was not documented, the increasing importation of electrical and electronic devices, some of them with a short life span, is a threat to the environment.
“These sites are usually frequented by the urban poor and unemployed scavenging for reusable plastics or metals for resale, posing serious health hazards to themselves as well as residents near the dumps.
“Developed countries manufacture millions of tonnes of products like computers, TV sets and mobile phones, as well as household appliances like refrigerators, microwaves, etc.
“Some of these products are exported to developing countries as new items but some, which are exported second-hand, are effectively dumped,” said Zunguze.
The short life span of most of these gadgets was confirmed by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) and is a warning of the dangerous amount of increasing e-waste, which is often dumped in waste disposal sites.
However, she said there was no evidence of wilful importation for dumping in Zimbabwe, although it could be happening.
“There is no empirical proof on the deliberate importation of electrical devices for dumping in the country, although it is there.
“But the truth of the matter is that there is a very low level of e-waste readiness. Discussions with ministries and departments on ICTs, the environment and waste management revealed there is neither awareness nor preparedness at all on issues of e-waste management,” she said.
Association for Progressive Communications (APC)’s senior official, Alan Finlay issued a paper on e-waste. He contends that there is a positive correlation between the economic strength of a country and the levels of e-waste.
Finlay says that: “In a strong economy, imported technology will be cheaper and old technology will be more readily replaced in this way increasing the levels of e-waste.”
The latter could be true, so that in a recovering economy like Zimbabwe, electronic goods may be used for longer periods before replacement.
Environmental Management Agency (EMA) spokesperson Steady Kangata expressed concern over the growing levels of e-waste in the country.
“While the magnitude of e-waste in the country is not documented, the problem is thought to be worse than what we can imagine. The increasing importation of electrical and electronic devices poses a big threat to the environment,” he said.
“The reduction in prices of ICT material has given birth to an upsurge of electronic devices imported from other countries. Some gadgets are second hand products and would either come as donations or at very cheap prices.
“Within a short space of time the gadgets would not be working and companies would just dump them in their offices worsening the e-waste problem.”
However, he said there were no particular incidents of e-waste problem in the country because most African states are still behind first world countries in technological advancement with most computers found in offices.
“We have this problem but mainly, it is caused by office equipment where computers are discarded because they have become obsolete. The situation also applies to the issue of cellular phones,” he said.
“It is high time people employ waste management concept that include, reuse, recycle, reduce, recover, redesign, refuse and rethink. People should use the recovery of components like those that have lead. Lead is detrimental to the ecosystem. This can be used in the manufacturing of other devices.”
He said the agency was guided by waste management policy in the control of all waste not specifically e-waste.
World Links Zimbabwe, an organisation whose focus is to facilitate the use of computers, urges schools to bring obsolete computers to their workshop in Harare.
The organisation has a recouping programme where computers are broken down to their basic parts; reusable parts are put back to use and the waste is sent to City Council municipal dumps and landfills.
However, with no incentives given to the schools as an encouragement to respond positively, the programme is facing challenges. This means most computers will remain gathering dust, taking valuable space, in institutions.
According to the World Computer Exchange an average computer may contain up to 1 000 toxins including lead, mercury, cadmium and other heavy metals that are known to cause damage to the nervous system, the brain, the kidneys, and can cause birth defects and cancer.
It is estimated that up to 40 percent of heavy metals in landfills come from electronic equipment discards.
The Harare waste management department has protocols of proper disposal for hazardous waste, but does not address the proper treatment of e-waste.
Mobile technology usage has significantly increased, and mobile phones are readily discarded due to rapid technological changes and their low average life span.
Recently there has been an influx of cheap second-hand mobile phones on the market from the East, especially Dubai and China.
The availability of cheap SIM cards means that anyone who wants to own a mobile phone can do so and many Zimbabwean own more than one line.
Zimbabwe is a signatory to the 1989 Basel Convention on the Control of Trans-boundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal, but is yet to ratify it.
More than 134 countries have recognised this convention.
However, ratification of the Basel Convention has not necessarily led to policy or legislative responses.
And environmentalist say in the absence of strong legislative practices in Zimbabwe, the job of managing e-waste is left to the country’s incapacitated Environmental Management Agency, which relies heavily on voluntary community actions to guide waste management.
They say there is still no political will to drive efforts to manage e-waste which is silently affecting public health and causing extensive damage to the environment.