Electronic waste – a looming threat

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By 2017-08-20

By Darshana Ashoka Kumara
Ceylon Today Features

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) coined the phrase 'Waste Crime' as waste is causing unfavourable outcomes in the economic, social and health fronts in unknown proportions. Discarded materials like electrical, electronic, industrial and agricultural waste are piling up in the environment as a result of the modern lifestyle of mankind. Electronic waste, or e-waste, is a new type of waste that is related to electronic products. Unwanted, de-active or obsolete electronic products come under the e-waste category. As technology advances, a lot of electronic devices turn into 'trash' at an exponential rate after a few short years of use.

E-waste is looming to be the biggest environment threat in the 21st century. Computers, VCRs, stereos, copiers, mobile phones, television sets, refrigerators, fax machines, Smartphones, tablets, mp3 players, e-readers, headphones, data sticks, household electronics like electronic kitchen gadgets, children's toys that light up or play music and so forth are counted as the electronic products that become e-waste. Hence, the waste derived from Electrical and Electronic Equipment (EEE) is becoming an inextricable part of Municipal solid waste. Sometimes, e-waste comes at a severe environmental cost. A study has found that at least 1.5 metric tons of water, 22 kilograms of chemicals and 240 kilograms of fossil fuel are needed to produce a single computer.

Around 50 million metric tons of e-waste is gathered all over the world every year. More than 6.3 million metric tons of screens and monitors are thrown out as e-waste worldwide. Four to five percent annual growth is reported in e-waste generation.

According to a senior spokesman of the Central Environmental Authority, they authorize collectors of e-waste. He added that anyone can get registered under the CEA to collect e-waste. The spokesman noted however that the Government of Sri Lanka is not involved in the e-waste collection process. Sri Lanka doesn't recycle the e-waste, by any means.

"Sri Lanka does not recycle its e-waste. There are a few e-waste collectors and they export the collected e-waste to foreign countries without doing any treatment. They only divide the e-waste into small parts."Professor of Forestry and Environmental Science, University of Sri Jayewardenepura, Nilanthi Bandara told Ceylon Today.

The UNEP says some companies in the world dump large quantities of hazardous waste mixed with regular waste to increase their profit. According to the UNEP the disposal of some hazardous waste, like e-waste, without proper treatment should be considered as an environmental crime: some companies even falsify documents in case of disposing such waste.

The treatment of electronic waste by the recycling process should be carried out adeptly and carefully to avoid leaching toxicity to the environment as it could bring high socio-economic and health impacts.

"Not doing e-waste recycling in Sri Lanka is good in a sense, at this stage, since the country is struggling to manage even other basic solid waste. Some e-waste has radioactive material. Therefore not treating them well would result in bad consequences." Professor Bandara added.

Sri Lanka, still, does not have the capacity to recycle e-waste. In 2008, the Sri Lankan Government announced Hazardous Waste (Scheduled Waste) Management rules under the National Environmental Act. Accordingly, e-waste has been categorized as a scheduled waste and every generator, collector, storer, transporter, recycler and disposer should obtain a license from the CEA. The new laws want every individual in the country to be aware of the dangerous impacts of e-waste.

"Sri Lanka needs a policy for e-waste management. Some e-waste collectors do not comply with the conventions and treaties pertaining to handling e-waste. They just break certain electronic equipment like television sets, take parts from them, and throw the rest back to the environment. Actually, there is no investigative arm with the government to nab the people doing such malpractices." U.D.N Gunarathne of Green Link (Pvt) Ltd told Ceylon Today.

In some cases, commercialization of things would give mixed results. E-waste collection should be handled carefully as it is a service and could possibly cause a dangerous impact on the environment and public life.

"E-waste collection is basically a service. We should be highly sensible about the environment. There is even smuggling happening in the e-waste export industry. But, my company only exports e-waste to Europe, Japan and Korea as they follow strict rules and regulations regarding the export of e-waste. Every country is not like that." Gunarathne stated.

People use some unsophisticated techniques like burning e-waste to obtain copper which results in dangerous effects on human life due to generation of lead, cadmium, chromium, brominated flame retardants or polychlorinated biphenyls. Toxins that would be generated from electronic waste can enter the soil and waterways, if they are not treated well. But, valuable materials, like mercury, copper and gold can be extracted out of e-waste using fine techniques; they need to be reused as most of them are exhaustible.

"Some metals of e-waste, like gold, silver, copper, aluminum, platinum, palladium, are precious and exhaustible and they can particularly be found in mobile phones and laptops. You need to put a lot of energy in mining, refining, and manufacturing such valuable components of e-waste and they also take a toll on the environment. Therefore recycling of e-waste is essential in this connection. But it should be responsible." Prof. Nilanthi Bandara added. The international community has enacted e-waste disposal laws; one such law is the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal. This convention discourages dumping toxic e-waste in poor countries by much developed countries.

"Sri Lanka has legislation in line with the Basel Convention. The problem of e-waste cannot be solved just by the National Environmental Act. We need a comprehensive action plan to tackle the problem. Best practices should be promoted. The corporate sector has a special responsibility in this regard. They should introduce initiatives that reduce the amount of e-waste." Senior Environment Lawyer Jagath Gunawardena told Ceylon Today.

The duty of slashing the amount of e-waste should not be shouldered by the consumers or manufacturers alone. The issue of e-waste should be tackled with a holistic approach.

"We approach the e-waste problem in a piece-meal approach. I think we should always promote best practices rather than the law.

The corporate sector and citizens should be responsible." Jagath Gunawardena highlighted.

One possible solution to e-waste management is introducing a buy-back or return system for old equipment. Another solution that can be implemented by the government is launching a tax break or rebate for the companies that effectively process old equipment. Even, state-of-art technology can be used to manage e-waste efficiently.

"We don't have a proper system to handle e-waste. We conducted research to explore and investigate the current condition of electronic waste's recycling system and developed a computerized system to manage the problems efficiently. We think we will get good response from the authorities." said Lecturer in IT of the South Eastern University of Sri Lanka, F.H.A. Shibly.

In a consumerist culture, people have an insatiable desire for the newest electronic gadgets; even though old ones work flawlessly. Practices like e-cycling, where reusing, donating or redistributing electronic items until the end of their life cycle, will be a remedy, to some extent.



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