By P.K. Balachandran/Daily Express
Colombo, November 16: Last week a news item reminded Sri Lankans of a major problem they might face in the coming years – the accumulation of e-waste, a dangerous environmental polluter.
In a significant development, a Sri Lankan company INSEE Ecocycle Lanka got together electrical and electronic waste comprising three tonnes of Printed Circuit Board, eight tonnes of plastic and 13 tonnes of metal for export to Japan, where Ousei Kankyo Shoji Co., will segregate the gold and platinum contained in the printed circuit board and pay Sri Lanka according to the weight of the gold and platinum recovered. The deal shows the way to the future.
E-waste comprises discarded electronic devices such as computers, mp3 players, televisions and cell phones. According to the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC), just one computer can contain hundreds of chemicals, including lead, mercury, cadmium, brominated flame retardants (BFRs) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC), many of which are known to cause cancer, respiratory illness and reproductive problems. These chemicals are especially dangerous because of their ability to get into the soil, water, and air, and accumulate in our bodies and the environment.
Increasing levels of electrical and electronic equipment and their improper and unsafe disposal through inferior methods of open burning or dumping, are creating grave risks to the environment and human health, says INSEE Ecocycle Lanka.
The annual E-Waste generation in Sri Lanka is nearly 70-75 MT. Accumulated Cathode Ray Tubes (CRT), mobile phones, CFL bulbs, batteries, computers are prominent among e-waste in Sri Lanka.
According to the Sri Lankan Central Environmental Authority (CEA), the problem is aggravated as people in Sri Lanka as in other developing countries, tend to go for low priced and poor quality electronic equipment. According to the Government Information Centre a considerable share of these imported items are not in working condition and have to be disposed of.
The sad part is that awareness of the dire consequences of simply dumping e-waste or burning them is sorely lacking. And so is encouragement of efforts to dispose them off scientifically.
Since recycling of e-waste is an expensive proposition, appropriately advanced recycling plants are not available in Sri Lanka. Therefore a part of the e-waste is exported to countries like China, India and Pakistan where they recycle and dispose in an environment-friendly manner.
By 2021, the world is expected to discard over 57 million tons of e-waste. The phenomenal increase in electronic goods in both the developing and developed worlds is the main reason for the exponential increase in e–waste. Worldwide, 50% of households now have internet access, and 7.7 billion people have cell phones.
The problem of quantitative expansion is further aggravated by the fact that the life span of electronic devices is getting shorter and people are forced to buy again and again. It is said that the average life of an android phone is just two years. Innovations also motivate people to go for new devices discarding the used ones.
There is a conspiracy in this says a commentator. “Companies manufacturers intentionally plan the obsolescence of their goods by updating the design or software and discontinuing support for older models, so that now it is usually cheaper and easier to buy a new product than to repair an old one. And because prices are dropping, electronic devices are in demand around the world as a growing middle class goes digital.”
Uses of e-waste
E-waste is not all evil. The components of electronic goods include gold, silver, copper, platinum, palladium, lithium, cobalt and other valuable elements. Combined global data for 2016 showed that the estimated value of recoverable materials was US$64.6 billion.
According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): “One metric ton of circuit boards can contain 40 to 800 times the amount of gold and 30 to 40 times the amount of copper mined from one metric ton of ore in the United States.”A recent study in China found that mining copper, gold and aluminium from ore costs 13 times more than recovering the metals through the urban mining of e-waste!
However, the 2016 data revealed that only 20% of the wealth hidden in e-waste was properly treated to enable recover valuable materials. Much of the rest was dumped in landfills where toxic chemicals could leach from the e-waste and end up contaminating the water supply. Therefore, investments must be made to get the best out of e-waste and prevent human disasters at the same time.
Advanced Western nations also have problems of handling e-waste though they can afford to re-cycle it. The US, which is the second largest producer of e-waste after China, generated 10 million tons of e-waste in 2012, over 64 pounds per person. But only 29% of this was recycled. The rest were either land-filled or incinerated.
Advanced countries send about 23% of their e-waste to developing countries each year. This is happening despite the fact that the EU and 186 States have ratified the Basel Convention which aims at minimizing the transfer of hazardous waste from the developed to the developing countries. The US, the only developed country that has not ratified the Basel Convention, has agreements that allow it to ship hazardous waste to developing countries.
When China (which was accepting 70% of the worlds’ e-waste) banned 24 kinds of solid waste, Western nations (and also Japan) began shipping their e-waste to Southeast Asian countries. But these countries too have begun to curb import of e-waste.
Recycling e-waste is practiced both in an unprofessional and a professional manner. However, since recycling companies must adhere to health and safety rules and use pollution-control technologies recycling becomes expensive. This results in companies and countries exporting their e-waste to developing countries where recycling is cheap.
At the informal recycling workshops, men, women and children recover valuable materials by burning devices to melt non-valuable materials using mercury and acids to recover gold. This is done without taking even the simplest precautions. In Guiyu, China, 75% of the households are involved in the recycling business. Informal recycling is practiced in India also.
The way out
One way out of the problem is to make manufacturers to design electronic systems which are safer, and more durable, repairable and recyclable. But it is doubtful if companies will jump at this proposal. It is also suggested that the use of toxic materials be minimized. It is reported that chemical engineers at Stanford University are developing the first fully biodegradable electronic circuit using natural dyes that dissolve in acid with a pH 100 times weaker than vinegar. A group of scientists is pulverizing e-waste into nano-dust by cooling the various materials, then grinding them up into homogenous powders that are “easy to reuse”.
There is also the concept of “extended producer responsibility”. This requires companies which make e-products to be responsible for the management and disposal at the end of their lives. They could turn waste materials into a resource for producing new products. In the US, the New York State Electronic Equipment Recycling and Reuse Act requires manufacturers to provide consumers with free and convenient e-waste recycling. In Sri Lanka, the CEA, in collaboration with stakeholder companies, has initiated a program to collect discarded electronic items. It would be done from households, reports said.