June 13, 2019

Deadly consequences of improper e-waste disposal


By Kayode Ojewale

IT is a fact that we cannot completely do away with e-wastes because of technological advancement in the world of electronic gadgets. E-wastes are electronic wastes.

They include used or discarded electrical or electronic devices like mobile phones, computers, TVs and other electronics that have reached the end of their usage. After a few years of usage, some electronics become obsolete, and turn to e-wastes which are either reused or refurbished, while others are recycled.

While the old electronic devices are still in use by those yet to catch up with modern technologies, the volume or quantity of e-wastes increases as technology advances with new inventions and innovations of gadgets.

Information technology firms worldwide are in unending research to develop improved technologies. These new electronic gadgets are massively welcomed by users as long as they come with new features and functionalities.

Some devices do not reach their end-of-lifespan before they are replaced with new ones. Old or near end-of-life gadgets are sold as second-hand or as scrap to be dismantled and burnt in order to obtain valuable precious metals(gold, silver, copper) for sale.

The bare-hand dismantling and open burning of e-waste is regarded as informal e-waste handling. Another informal e-waste management practice is by dipping dismantled electronic pieces into acid to wash off the valuables. Some toxic substances are released to the environment in the process.

Also read: Air pollution kills 100,000 Indian kids every year, study finds

Nigeria’s former Minister of State for Environment, Alhaji Ibrahim Jibril, once enlightened the public on the consequential effects of improper and informal handling of e-waste on health and environment. The ex-minister said: “The challenge that e-waste poses to the environment and Nigeria as a nation can no longer be ignored: at the same time, e-waste is an economic opportunity that can be exploited to generate wealth”.

Alhaji Jibril pointed out that e-waste is a real challenge and environmental hazard. He further said that there is a concerted effort by major players in electronics all over the world to tackle e-waste challenges. Some electronics manufacturing companies have come together to take the initiative, knowing they have the responsibility of recycling these products which they initiated in the first place.

The problem of informal recycling of e-waste has caused untold harm to air, soil and water components of the environment, and indirectly on the health of Nigerians. E-wastes contain some hazardous heavy metals which include lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium and brominated flame retardants.

Household batteries are potentially hazardous forms of e-waste because they contain some heavy metals too. These batteries, when improperly disposed or recycled, become toxic to the environment. An e-waste dumpsite is a one-way ticket to the grave for the scavengers and dumpsite workers.

Metallic toxins released during the open burning of the dismantled gadgets are regularly being inhaled by these people. Exposure to these heavy metals by contact or ingestion may cause various forms of cancer, damage to body organs and brain, and sometimes death.

The managing director of a Lagos-based e-waste recycling firm, Mr Andrian Clews, said: “Some of those electronic wastes contain harmful substances. All of them are safe when in use but when you start breaking or burning them, they become harmful; by touching these metals people expose themselves to danger.”

It may interest you to know that the e-waste scavengers and dumpsite workers are not the only ones at risk of health problems, those who stay in that vicinity are also at risk.

The soil and water bodies around e-waste dumpsites are contaminated. Burning of plastic-coated components of e-wastes is responsible for this and may portend imminent health hazard to unprotected recycle workers and people living within the vicinity. It is expedient to state clearly here, especially to the scavengers and those directly involved in informal e-waste recycling, that the business feeds you first and then it kills you!

The DG, National Environmental Standards and Regulations Enforcement Agency, NESREA, Mr. Lawrence Anukam, while speaking on ‘Solution to the growing e-waste problem facing Nigeria’, in one of the editions of a Channels TV programme, ‘Earthfile’, said the introduction of Extended Producer Responsibility, EPR, will help solve the e-waste problem. The EPR programme, he said, involves the manufacturer of a product taking the responsibility for what happens to the end of life of that product – to be returned to the producer or to be recycled.  He added that the EPR programme would be effective if all stakeholders (manufacturer, user and recycler) are involved.

To tackle this growing e-waste challenge in Nigeria, three stakeholders are principally involved – the government, manufacturer and the user. The government must ensure increased sensitisation of the general public, periodic and regular review of legislation, guidelines, standards, policies and regulations through its environmental and health ministries.

Law enforcement agencies are also not left out in the fight against e-waste menace. The EPR programme checks the manufacturer’s role in the area of end-of-life product take-back by the producer through proper recycling. Manufacturers are advised to use less hazardous chemicals to reduce inherent health risks in handling and recycling these e-wastes. Product users must channel their used or old electronics to recycling companies only, not to dumpsites where open burning is done.

The onus to keep the environment safe also lies on the user by handling and disposing of e-waste properly. So, when it comes to gadgets, think before you throw or dump!