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E-waste overload

Mar 08 2010 23:23
Simon Dingle

ELECTRONIC waste, consisting mostly of old computers and gadgets from developed nations, continues to flood into South Africa with no end in sight.

Last month the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) said that by 2020 e-waste will increase by 400% from 2007 levels, in both SA and China. In India it will rise by 500%.

"Unless action is stepped up to properly collect and recycle materials, many developing countries face the spectre of hazardous e-waste mountains with serious consequences for the environment and public health," said the UN report.

Computer hardware contains a cocktail of harmful chemicals that, when dumped into landfill, seeps into the soil and ground water. But it's not all rubbish - some precious metals are also in the mix.

For example, about one ounce of gold can be extracted from a ton of circuit-board waste. And the rudimentary way you extract it is by burning the waste, which produces toxic fumes.

In Nigeria, for example, tons of waste arrive every year, disguised as "donations" from companies in Europe and elsewhere that somehow need to get rid of old computers. They arrive on ships, mostly broken, and end up in landfill. Gangs then force workers, often children, to gather and burn the stuff. It's a mess.

But the fact that recycling e-waste can be good business is perhaps an opportunity to convince more ethical and responsible businesses to get involved in cleaning up.

Some PR was conducted at the recent Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver, where athletes' medals contained traces of precious metals recovered from e-waste - although only a small fraction. HP and other computer companies have also set up recycling operations in Africa to deal with the problem, but we're still just scratching at the surface.

The real problem is in the first world, where more and more waste is generated. The USA is the number 1 culprit and, according to the UNEP report, produces 3 million metric tons of electronic waste per year.

This is usually sent to China for "recycling", but the reality is that a large deal of it is disposed of through rudimentary burning and other dangerous processes.

Activists working against the problem have taken it back to the companies generating the waste and all of the big guys have formalised recycling and take-back programmes, such as Nokia that will even recover and process waste from other vendors' products. Sony Ericsson is also active in recycling old cellphones, but does not operate its recycling programme in South Africa.

In a market like the USA where over 150 million cellphones alone are purchased every year, it's difficult for any one entity to act on the problem without involvement from companies, consumers, governments and global bodies to stem the tide.

The UN has an initiative that is trying to coordinate a reaction to the problem, called StEP (Solving the E-waste Problem). This organisation brings together government, scientists, industry and other parties to tackle e-waste. It also has big companies like HP signed up.

It's not an easy matter to deal with, but we're quite simply screwed unless we do. At the very least, South Africans should know that the problem exists and be on the lookout for illegal-looking dumping of electronic waste.

- Fin24.com

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