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Elements of e-waste

Industrial revolution followed by the advances in information technology during the last century has radically changed people’s lifestyle. Although this development has helped the human race, mismanagement has led to new problems of contamination and pollution. The technical prowess acquired during the last century has posed a new challenge in the management of wastes. For example, personal computers (PCs) contain certain components, which are highly toxic, such as chlorinated and brominated substances, toxic gases, toxic metals, biologically active materials, acids, plastics and plastic additives. The hazardous content of these materials pose an environmental and health threat. Thus proper management is necessary while disposing or recycling e¬-wastes.
These days computer has become most common and widely used gadget in all kinds of activities ranging from schools, residences, offices to manufacturing industries. E-toxic components in computers could be summarized as circuit boards containing heavy metals like lead & cadmium; batteries containing cadmium; cathode ray tubes with lead oxide & barium; brominated flame retardants used on printed circuit boards, cables and plastic casing; poly vinyl chloride (PVC) coated copper cables and plastic computer casings that release highly toxic dioxins & furans when burnt to recover valuable metals; mercury switches; mercury in flat screens; poly chlorinated biphenyl’s (PCB’s) present in older capacitors; transformers; etc. Basel Action Network (BAN) estimates that the 500 million computers in the world contain 2.87 billion kgs of plastics, 716.7 million kgs of lead and 286,700 kgs of mercury. The average 14-inch monitor uses a tube that contains an estimated 2.5 to 4 kgs of lead. The lead can seep into the ground water from landfills thereby contaminating it. If the tube is crushed and burned, it emits toxic fumes into the air.
Disposal of e-wastes is a particular problem faced in many regions across the globe. Computer wastes that are land filled produces contaminated leachates which eventually pollute the groundwater. Acids and sludge obtained from melting computer chips, if disposed on the ground causes acidification of soil.
This is due to disposal of recycling wastes such as acids, sludges etc. in rivers. Now water is being transported from faraway towns to cater to the demands of the population. Incineration of e-wastes can emit toxic fumes and gases, thereby polluting the surrounding air. Improperly monitored landfills can cause environmental hazards. Mercury will leach when certain electronic devices, such as circuit breakers are destroyed.
Not only does the leaching of mercury poses specific problems, the vaporization of metallic mercury and dimethylene mercury, both part of Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) is also of concern. In addition, uncontrolled fires may arise at landfills and this could be a frequent occurrence in many countries.
If these electronic items are discarded with other household garbage, the toxics pose a threat to both health and vital components of the ecosystem. In view of the ill-effects of hazardous wastes to both environment and health, several countries exhorted the need for a global agreement to address the problems and challenges posed by hazardous waste.
Also, in the late 1980s, a tightening of environmental regulations in industrialized countries led to a dramatic rise in the cost of hazardous waste disposal. Searching for cheaper ways to get rid of the wastes, “toxic traders” began shipping hazardous waste to developing countries. International outrage following these irresponsible activities led to the drafting and adoption of strategic plans and regulations at the Basel Convention. The convention is aimed at controlling and reducing trans-boundary movements of hazardous and other e-wastes.
A draft strategic plan has been proposed for the implementation of the Basel Convention. The Draft Strategic Plan takes into account the existing regional plans, strategies, the decisions of the Conference of the Parties and its subsidiary bodies, ongoing project activities and process of international environmental governance and sustainable development. The draft requires action at all levels of society: training, information, communication, methodological tools, capacity building with financial support, transfer of know-how, knowledge and sound, proven cleaner technologies and processes to assist in the concrete implementation of the Basel Declaration. It also calls for the effective involvement and coordination by all concerned stakeholders as essential for achieving the aims of the Basel Declaration within the approach of common but differentiated responsibility.
The Basel Convention brought about a respite to the trans-boundary movement of hazardous waste. India and other countries have ratified the convention. However US is not a party to the ban and is responsible for disposing hazardous waste, such as, e-waste to Asian countries even today.
In the European Union where the annual quantity of electronic waste is likely to double in the next 12 years, the European Parliament has recently passed legislation that will require manufacturers to take back their electronic products when consumers discard them.
The writer can be reached at <nadia.aleem01@gmail.com>
 


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