Walter Mswazie, Masvingo Correspondent
ON the back of technological advancement, the world is now grappling with the challenge of e-waste with developing nations sitting on a time bomb as no tangible policies have been put in place to control its disposal.
The rapid spread of electrical and electronic equipment has attracted public attention, both on the positive and negative effects of bad management of e-waste vis- a-vis the environment and human health.
Available information shows that Ghana accounts for mountains of hazardous waste weighing about 40 million tonnes every year. The waste, mostly from Europe and North America, is burned, albeit, in a hazardous effort to recover valuable metals.
A researcher at the University of Ghana, Mr Atiemo Sampson, said: “Poor people in Africa can’t afford to process Europe’s electronic wastes. Those wastes are poisoning our children.”
Mr Sampson, a PhD student, was involved in testing the school and other areas where more than 100 people were breaking and burning electronic junk to obtain valuable metals like copper.
In pursuance to this, about 50 organisations that include partners in the industry, country representatives, academia and non-governmental organisations came up with an initiative called STEP — Solution to E-waste Problem.
The main objectives behind STEP are to optimise the life cycle of electrical and electronic equipment by improving supply chains and reducing contamination.
It also seeks to promote re-use of the electrical devices in place of disposing, exercising the disparities such as the digital divide between the industrialising and industrialised nations as well as increasing scientific public knowledge on e-waste.
STEP culminated from a research conducted in 2003 at United Nations Universities (UNU) to find the relationship between electronic devices, especially computers and the environment.
This led to the publication of a book project called Computers and Environment 2003. The concept is the brain child of Klaus Hieronymi (Hewlett Packard), Eric Williams (UNU) and Axel Schneider (PT PLUS). It is premised on the empirical evaluation and integrates a comprehensive view of the social, environmental and economic aspects of e-waste.
STEP discourages illegal activities related to e-waste including illegal importation and reuse or recycling practices that are hazardous to human health and the environment. It seeks to promote safe, eco and energy efficient, re-use and re-cycling practices around the globe in a socially responsible manner.
In its 2010-2014 strategic plan, the Ministry of ICT (Zimbabwe) set a target to increase national tele-density by 10 percent. This means the country experienced an upsurge in the use of computers, cellular phones and other electronic gadgets.
According to a 2009 position paper on ICTs and women development presented by E-knowledge for Women In Southern Africa (ECOWIZA) programme manager Mrs Margaret Zunguze, the problem of e-waste in Zimbabwe is not documented and therefore the increasing importation of electrical and electronic devices, some of them with a short life span, is a threat to the environment.
“The e-waste sites are usually frequented by the urban poor and unemployed scavenging for reusable plastics or metals for resale, posing serious health hazards to themselves as well as residents near the dumps.
“Developed countries manufacture millions of tonnes of products like computers, TV sets and mobile phones, as well as household appliances like refrigerators, microwaves, etc. Some of these products are exported to developing countries as new items but some, which are exported second-hand, are effectively dumped,” said Mrs Zunguze.
The short lifespan of most of these gadgets was confirmed by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) and this is through its reports on the warnings of dangerous amounts of increasing e-waste which is often dumped in waste disposal sites.
Mrs Zunguze however said there was no evidence of willful importation for dumping in Zimbabwe although it could be happening.
“There’s no empirical proof on the deliberate importation of electrical devices for dumping in the country, although it’s there.
“But the truth of the matter is that there’s a very low level of e-waste readiness. Discussions with ministries and departments on ICTs, the environment and waste management, revealed there is neither awareness nor preparedness at all on issues of e-waste management,” she said.
Association for Progressive Communications (APC)’s senior official Alan Finlay issued a paper on e-waste and contends that there is a positive correlation between the economic strength of a country and the levels of e-waste.
Finlay says: “In a strong economy, imported technology will be cheaper and old technology will be more readily replaced thereby increasing the levels of e-waste.”
In a recovering economy like Zimbabwe, electronic goods may be used for longer periods before replacement which is an advantage as it reduces e-waste.
Environmental Management Agency (EMA) head of communications Mr Steady Kangata said the extent of e-waste in the country was not as bad as in developed countries.
He, however said the challenge was that the magnitude of e-waste in the country is not documented and as such the problem could be worse than what is being imagined.
Mr Kangata said the increasing importation of electrical and electronic devices therefore poses a big threat to the environment.
“The reduction in prices of ICT material has resulted in increased importation of electronic devices.
“Some of the gadgets come as second hand products at very cheap prices while others are donated,” he said.
Mr Kangata said the second hand gadgets just work for a short period and are dumped.
He said there were no particular incidents of e-waste problems in the country because most African states are still behind first world countries in technological advancement and as such were still using their old computers.
Mr Kangata however said it was time people employed waste management concepts that include, re-use, recycle, reduce, recover, re-design, refuse and rethink.
“People should use the recovery of components like those that have lead. Lead is detrimental to the ecosystem. These recovered components can be used to manufacture other devices,” he said.
World Links Zimbabwe, an organisation whose focus is to facilitate the use of computers, urges schools to bring obsolete computers to their workshop in Harare.
The organisation has a recouping programme where computers are broken down to their basic parts; re-usable parts are put back to use and the waste is sent to municipal dumps and landfills.
There are however no incentives given to schools to encourage them to surrender the computers hence the poor response. Most computers are as a result gathering dust at different schools across the country.
According to the World Computer Exchange, an average computer may contain up to 1 000 toxins including lead, mercury, cadmium and other heavy metals that are known to cause damage to the nervous system, the brain, the kidneys and can cause birth defects and cancer. It is estimated that up to 40 percent of heavy metals in landfills come from electronic equipment discards.
The Waste Management Department of the Municipality of Harare has protocols of proper disposal of hazardous waste but does not address the proper treatment of e-waste.
Mobile technology usage has significantly increased and mobile phones are readily discarded due to rapid technological changes and their low average lifespan.
Recently, there has been an influx of cheap second-hand mobile phones on the market from the East, especially Dubai and China.
The availability of cheap SIM cards means that anyone who wants to own a mobile phone can do so and many Zimbabweans own more than one line.
Zimbabwe is a signatory to the Basel Convention on the Control of Trans-boundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal.
The convention was signed on March 22, 1989, but Zimbabwe has not yet ratified it.