Sunday,17 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1229, (15 -21 January 2015)
Sunday,17 February, 2019
Issue 1229, (15 -21 January 2015)

Ahram Weekly

When gadgets die

Every time you buy a new television, computer or phone, an older one is retired, leaving others with the problem of safely disposing e-waste, writes Mahmoud Bakr

Al-Ahram Weekly

Think of the millions of electronic gadgets that appear on the market every year for use in our homes, cars and workplaces. The lifetime of many of these gadgets is not long, often five years or less. When it is time to dispose unwanted or unused products, most of us either put them in a drawer, pass them on to a friend or dump them in the garbage without thinking of the consequences.

Some may go to the extra effort of recycling, which means going back to the store, assuming that it has a recycling programme, and giving the old gadget back. But even then the problem of disposal may not be completely addressed as the store may not have the means or the desire to dispose of the gadget safely.

At present, only a small proportion of the electronic gadgets that need to be recycled worldwide are disposed of safely, experts say. They warn that the hazards of e-waste are likely to grow as technological advances render the gadgets we use today obsolete.

As a result, some rich nations have been dumping their e-waste in poor countries. Sometimes this is done clandestinely, to detrimental effect, and sometimes it takes place through the re-export of used devices.

While there is probably some benefit for less developed countries (LDC) receiving used electronics, the problem is that the practice also increases the volume of such gadgets in the LDCs, which generally don’t have the expertise or regulations needed for the safe disposal of hazardous waste.

With anywhere between 20 and 50 million tons of e-waste produced annually worldwide, the capacity of industrial nations to handle the consequences of obsolete technology has been stretched to the limits. According to experts, the volume of e-waste is currently two per cent or more of municipal waste in rich countries, and this figure is likely to grow with the increased digitisation of offices, households and industry.

It is believed that about 75 per cent of all e-waste produced in the industrial world is currently shipped to LDCs for recycling or disposal. As recycling in LDCs is often a rudimentary business that relies on child labour, the danger to health and the environment is all too clear.


CLASSIFYING REFUSE: The first type of electrical and electronic refuse, also known as “white waste,” is made up of refrigerators, washing machines, dishwashers, dryers and the like. The second type, known as “grey waste,” consists of communication devices, such as phones, cameras and security systems. And the third, or “brown waste,” consists of consumer devices such as televisions and audio systems. Grey waste is considered to be the most toxic and the hardest to recycle.

According to environmental expert Mohamed Al-Zarqa the unsafe handling of electronic refuse, including mobile phones, can be extremely harmful for the handlers and the public at large, with junk merchants, often the final destination of such gadgets, being ill-equipped to handle the toxic materials in modern communication devices.

Piles of obsolete electronic devices are often seen in repair shops in Cairo and other Egyptian cities where the cast-off devices are often scavenged for spare parts. Once this has happened, the rest of the device is likely to end up in the garbage, where untrained garbage collectors may dispose of it in the same way solid waste is usually disposed of, either by incineration or burying in landfills.

At some stage the handlers may wish to extract some value from the dismembered products, Al-Zarqa said. “Some melt the electronic circuit boards to get precious metals, such as gold and silver, out of them. When the material becomes of little value it is disposed of through burning or burial, which can cause grave health and environmental consequences,” he said.

One of the materials used in fluorescent lamps, Al-Zarqa said, is barium, a chemical element that can cause brain, heart or liver damage to those handling it. Another element, cadmium, found in all mobile phones, computers and televisions, is also dangerous if handled by untrained personnel, Al-Zarqa said.

If inhaled, cadmium fumes can lead to flu-like symptoms, including a high temperature, headache, sweat, shivering and muscle pains. In the long run, exposure to cadmium can also cause osteoporosis. It is used in semi-conductors and dry batteries.

Nearly 22 per cent of the world’s mercury consumption is due to its use in electronics, including in thermostats, switch keys, mobile phones and flat-screen televisions. Mercury fumes, emitted during burning and melting, can cause liver and brain damage, Al-Zarqa said.

Abdel-Salam Sallam, a professor at Ain Shams University in Cairo, also warned of the unsafe handling of energy-saving light bulbs, which contain mercury. If the bulb is broken, the mercury inside them can leak, he said.


GROWING CONCERNS: According to Abdel-Messih Abdel-Masih, a professor of environmental studies at Ain Shams University, e-refuse is growing at a rate that is twice or three times faster than other components of municipal waste. Nearly 50 million tons of e-waste are produced worldwide every year.

According to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), the volume of e-waste in LDCs has tripled over the past five years. Nearly 130 million mobile phones and 70 million computers were discarded last year, and these figures may double within the next four or five years, Abdel-Massih said.

“The number of PCs worldwide was two billion in 2014, and it is growing by 12 per cent annually. The number of mobile phones worldwide was 5.6 billion in 2013,” he noted. Egypt now has nearly 68 million mobile phones, and the figure is still growing.

According to Abdel-Massih, e-waste typically contains 1,000 or so chemical ingredients, many of which are toxic. The producers of mobile phones and personal computers currently use about three per cent of the world’s supply of gold and silver, 13 per cent of the supply of palladium and 15 per cent of the supply of cobalt. The disposal of e-waste must be carried out by trained individuals, and under strict health regulations, he said.

Mohamed Bayyumi, director of the UNDP energy programme, said that in many Arab countries the disposal of hazardous materials is left to untrained individuals who don’t fully understand the hazards involved. To extract precious metals from plastic objects, these individuals may resort to burning, for example, which can release highly toxic dioxins and furans into the air, substances that are listed as hazardous under the Stockholm Convention.

Gamal Abdel-Nasser, deputy president for environmental affairs at Cairo University, said that there should be a partnership between government and private business to address the problem. The EU, he noted, had already taken the lead in such efforts by enforcing strict measures for the safe disposal of e-waste.

Ahmad Kamal, director of the Office for Environmental Responsibility and Sustainable Development at the Federation of Egyptian Industries (FEI), said that the FEI has signed a partnership agreement with Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Italy on the recycling of e-waste that aims to create up-to-date recycling units in various Egyptian governorates.

Other efforts are underway to train individuals and companies on the recycling and disposal of e-waste.


AN AFRICAN DILEMMA: Hossam Khodeir, a health and environment consultant, said that up to 80 per cent of e-waste in industrial countries is not recycled, but is rather sent to China, India and African countries for disposal, a practice that the Basel Convention seeks to end.

Africa is said to be the final destination for 50 million tons of e-waste, much of which is handled by garbage collectors. When untrained people try to extract valuable metals from discarded electronics they are often exposed to lead, mercury and other substances that can cause serious health problems, Khodeir noted.

Sherif Issa heads up the health and environment department of Mobinil, the Egyptian mobile phone operator. He said that a recycling facility is due to open in 6 October City in March, and will be Egypt’s first purpose-built installation for the safe retrieval of recyclable material from e-waste.

According to Issa, cooperation is underway between the Ministry of Environmental Affairs (MEA), the regional branch of the Environmental Affairs Agency for Upper Egypt and the Society for the Protection of the Environment in Assyut to offer training on the safe disposal of e-waste.

In Alexandria, 65 schools recently took part in an awareness campaign during which e-waste was collected and safely disposed of at the Nasiriyah landfill, Issa said. Mobinil and the Ruh Al-Shabab Society, an NGO, have also created a recycling school in Manshiet Nasser in Cairo to train garbage collectors to handle e-waste.

However, while MEA legal expert Mahmoud Farouk said that there is no shortage of regional and international agreements on hazardous waste, e-waste is not fully addressed in most of them. The Arab countries and most LDCs have not taken part in international discussions on e-waste, and their views have thus not made it into the current body of laws tackling the issue. Consequently, many LDCs are not aware of their rights and duties under the agreements.

For the time being, bargain-hunters can easily acquire used electronics in the bustling Friday market in the Cairo district of Basateen, where, among the array of household items — office equipment, old furniture, animals and birds — that are brought in to the market every week a computer in working order can be bought for as little as LE500 ($70).

Several computer centres in Mohandiseen and Heliopolis have also started dealing in used computers, but their prices are usually 50 per cent higher than those at the Friday market.


A WORLDWIDE CRISIS: According to the UN, e-waste is increasing in Europe alone by up to five per cent annually, making it the fastest-growing component of municipal refuse.

Consumers, many of whom are unaware of the grave health hazards of e-waste, often toss electronic waste into the garbage along with other refuse. So far, nearly 75 per cent of European e-refuse is unaccounted for (a portion of it is possibly still stashed away in homes, offices and storehouses).

Experts say that of the 8.7 million tons of e-waste produced annually in the EU countries, only 2.1 million are recycled. In the US, the ratio of recycling is also modest, at 10 per cent for computers and 14 per cent for TV sets. The US also sends a substantial portion of its e-waste for recycling in African and Asian LDCs, where health precautions are generally inadequate if not nonexistent.

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