The Toxic Legacy of E-waste

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Electronic waste (e-waste) can be defined as “any electrical appliance that has reached its end of life”. The representative life cycle of such appliances goes through stages like, introduction, growth, maturity, and recycling or disposal. An appliance reaches the final stage either because it is at the end of its product life cycle, progresses of technology, and/or due to the shifting requirements of consumers. It is now progressively common to replace electronics within a short duration. As a result of which, the generation of e-waste is rising rapidly.

E-waste is physically and chemically distinctive from other types of wastes. It includes both precious metals as well as various hazardous which all require special handling and recycling techniques to minimize the environmental contamination, and potential harmful effects on human health.

Research and Markets report, reveals that in the recycling process of e-waste, the materials such as copper, aluminum, gold, silver, glass, plastics and many others can be extracted. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, “Experts estimate that recycling 1 million cell phones can recover about 24 kg of gold, 250 kg of silver, 9 kg of palladium, and more than 9,000 kg of copper.” These recycled materials are reused for the manufacturing of electronic and non-electronic products.

This process of creating secondary raw materials results in huge energy savings. As recycling into secondary raw material uses 74 per cent less energy than the production of the primary products. It consequently allows the protection of valuable resources, divert usable materials from landfill and conserve energy simultaneously. The global e-waste management market is projected to reach $5.04 billion by the year 2020, which is a massive figure, one that seems irresistible to developing economies.

Together with the monetary incentive for third world countries, the NIMBY (not in my back yard) attitude of developed countries, along with high labour costs, lack of facilities for recycling of e-waste, and strict environmental regulations incline developed countries to export some of their e-waste to poorer developing countries. The latter often treats and recycles the waste, however, at the expense of both human health and environment. For Pakistan this has become a mammoth task, by the invasion of e-waste created domestically and that imported from developed countries. Iqbal et al., 2015 asserts that most of the e-waste imported to Pakistan is still in the unidentified category, which is not classified by the country’s customs department.

The major recycling waste sites (highlighted by Iqbal et al., 2015 and other studies) in Pakistan are located in the port city of Karachi. Cities of Lahore, Peshawar, Gujranwala, Faisalabad, and Rawalpindi are also party to the recycling and disassembling of the e-waste, but at a minor scale compared to that of Karachi. In Pakistan, the vast influx of e-waste has formed an informal substance economy that feeds a population of 150,000 approximately. The country’s poor retrieve what they can from the waste of the ‘electronic revolution’. Some may not be aware of the dangers of what they are handling, others that do, have little choice, as it represents an important source of income.

Laborers involved in this work pay a hefty price for a few grams of treasure; four million people perish every year to causes linked to e-waste, and evidently these workers have the lowest life expectancy in Pakistan. Typical e-waste recyclers in the informal setting work with very few tools (blowtorches, hammers, acid baths), no personal protection equipment, that too amongst unventilated rooms filled with nauseating fumes, and working for more than 10 hours a day. These activities can release persistent toxic substances (PTSs) into environment ending up into food webs. Numerous PTSs are notorious as endocrine disrupters, carcinogens and health deteriorating agents leading to reproductive disorders, developmental deformities, in both humans and wildlife.

Wong et al., 2007 carried out a study in which they examined the levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon, polychlorinated biphenyls, flame retardants, and heavy metals in air, soil and sediment in surroundings of e-waste recycling centres. The results showed exceptionally high concentrations. Moreover, it suggested that, they can bio-accumulate in humans and wildlife, once they enter the bloodstream. In addition, burning of computer parts can release a concoction of dioxins, which are very toxic. Similarly, Lead is also a very dangerous component as it can affect the mental ability of children. Chromium can enter the soil and water with ease. If it is inhaled or ingested, it can cause nasal ulcers, breathing impairment, asthma, and lung or stomach tumours, as it is a known carcinogen.

Robert Knoth, a photographer linked with Greenpeace, created a photo essay ‘Scrap Life’ about the area of Shershah and Lyari in Karachi. He found e-waste burning adjacent the river in Lyari and many of the chemicals from the waste seeping into the river, turning it black. The Lyari river passes through the mangroves, eventually finding its way into the Arabian Sea. Studies show that the mangroves of the Indus Delta are exceedingly polluted with metals. This also poses a threat to the fish population in the coastal areas, and thus the fishery community. Knoth also established that many children, some as young as twelve, were seen working in the e-waste industry. This can mainly be attributed to the 50% drop out rate of children in their first 5 years of education, which according to a report by UN is one of the highest rates in the world.

In Pakistan’s front, neglect of governmental and legislative organizations has led to circumstances in which no inventory, on the domestic generation of e-waste nor the illegal import of second-hand equipment or e-waste, exists. There is prominent presence of laws such as the PEPA Act of 1997, which counteract this perturbing matter. Section 11 of this Act ‘prohibits discharge or emission of any hazardous chemical in the environment’ and Section 13 ‘strictly prohibits the importation of any hazardous substance in the territory of Pakistan’. Pakistan is also a signatory of the Basel Convention (1994), that is essentially put together to monitor the trans-boundary movement of toxic wastes such as e-waste. The succeeding Basel Ban Amendment (1995) restricts ‘all type of hazardous waste from transboundary movement for any reason, including recycling’.

Despite the existence of Basel and other conventions that address such issues, the transmission of e-waste remains relatively high. The accompanying export of e-waste from developed to developing regions has been continuing for years, because of the unlawful character of such exports, there is still a dearth of information available on the transboundary movements and approximations of hidden flows are  highly capricious. Furthermore, there is no evidence of a competent regulatory authority overseeing the occupational exposures and effluence caused by the processing of e-waste. As with many other supervisory authorities in Pakistan, the practical uses of these laws seem inconsequential.

Having said that, to every problem there needs to be a solution, which is genuinely safe and environmentally viable. The following are some of the solutions for the e-waste problem in Pakistan:

  1. The leading solution to this crisis is to eliminate unsafe chemicals from the products and to protect the general public and workers from the toxins resulting from recycling or disposal of e-waste.
  2. This grave issue needs to be highlighted and brought to the attention of the government, NGOs and the general public. Manufacturers, recyclers, scrapers and public must be educated regarding the potential threat of e-waste to health & environment, and importance of waste management protocols. Workforce involved in waste processing activities must be properly educated and trained with occupational health and safety. This could be done by information dissemination through print, electronic and social media.
  3. There should be an introduction of end user certificates that provide information to the authorities, as to where the imported goods will be destined to; helping in regulating and pinpointing any unregistered industries that pose afore mentioned threats.
  4. E-waste management can only be done sustainably if the concerned authorities effectively regulate the standards and legalities related to it. This can be undertaken through enforcement of binding laws and conventions.
  5. Additionally, it calls upon firms and consumers alike to consider and take responsibility for the consequences of the actions they un/intentionally take. There has been a high rate of drop out of school owing to poverty, abuse and employment opportunities at young ages; this needs to end. Protection of workers and the environment affected by the e-waste is vital.
  6. Introduce extended producer responsibility or product takeback; an environmental protection strategy that makes the manufacturer of the product take responsibility for the entire life cycle of the product and especially for the recycling and final disposal of the product.
  7. Encourage longer lasting, recyclable and less toxic product design. The aim should be “design to last”, instead of “design to dump”.
  8. Establish formal recycling facilities to deliver income generating opportunities for both small scale enterprises and individual workers. The financial, environmental and health benefits of formal e-waste recycling are in stark contrast to informal facilities, which employ only a few people, generate less income, and may lead to many expenses such as indirect health costs. Therefore, if this business of recycling can be formalized, legalized, and equipped with technological advancements; Pakistan can potentially turnaround and benefit from this crisis.

Conclusively, this issue cannot be brushed under the carpet, as it is never trivial when human lives are un/knowingly at risk. The vital question to raise here is that; are the lives of people living in third world countries any less than those in the first, especially in the presence of other more environmentally friendly and safer methods of disposing off e-waste? Finally, improved knowledge and mindfulness will prove critical in backing the government, community and stakeholders, to agree upon rigorous approaches for future endeavours. This will assist in managing and possibly taking advantage, of the e-waste cumulating in Pakistan.


Published in: Volume 08 Issue 33

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