Related Stories By Walter Mswazie Published: 20120316

The world is witnessing technological advancements at a very fast pace, with African countries becoming easy dumping sites for cheap, second-hand electronic devices.

Africans buy the cheap e-hardware and in a short space of time, it is totally dysfunctional and is thrown out, forming huge dumpsites in and around urban centres.

But that is not the end of the story.

Enterprising people go to the dumps and sift through the mounds for the discarded electronic and electrical devices.

They break them down and sometimes burn them to extract metals and components that they want to re-use.

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 usually burnt in a hazardous effort to recover valuable metals.

A researcher at the University of Ghana, Atiemo Sampson, has said, “Poor people in Africa cannot afford to process Europe’s electronic waste.

“That waste is poisoning our children.”

Sampson, a PhD student, was part of a team that investigated several sites where people were breaking and burning e-waste to extract metals like copper.

The magnitude of the problem is such that about 50 organisations – bringing together industry, academia and non-governmental organisation (NGOs) – have come up with an initiative called STEP to deal with the matter.

STEP stands for 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 instead of throwing them out as trash, and increasing scientific public knowledge on e-waste, among other aims.

STEP is the result of research conducted in 2003 at United Nations universities to establish the relationship between electronic devices ‑ especially computers ‑ and the environment.

This led to the publication of a book titled “Computers and Environment 2003”.

The concept is the brainchild of Klaus Hieronymi (Hewlett-Packard), Eric Williams (UNU) and Axel Schneider (PT PLUS), 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, energy-efficient and environmentally friendly practices within the scope of use, recycling and disposal of electrical and electronic devices.

Issues of e-waste can be understood in three main ways: the use of ICTs as an instrument for environmental protection and the sustainable use of natural resources; the environmentally sustainable way of consuming, disposing, recycling and discarding hardware and components used in ICTs; and the use of ICTs in forecasting, monitoring and measuring the impact of natural and human-made disasters in developing countries.

Most African countries are witnessing, and actively driving, growth in ICT use.

This means there will be more e-waste around.

E-knowledge for Women in Southern Africa programme manager, Margaret Zunguze, says the problem of e-waste is not well documented in the region.

There is a proliferation of cheap gadgets with short lifespans and these quickly find their way to dumpsites.

“These 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, and microwaves.

“Some of these products are exported to developing countries as new items but some, which are exported second-hand, are effectively dumped,” says Zunguze.

However, she notes, there is no evidence of deliberate dumping of subs-standard goods, though this certainly could be happening.

“But the truth of the matter is that there is a very low level of e-waste readiness.

“Discussions with ministries, departments on ICTs, and environment and waste management agencies revealed there is neither awareness nor preparedness at all on issues of e-waste management.”

An official with the Association for Progressive Communications, Alan Finlay, contends that there is a positive correlation between the economic strength of a country and the levels of e-waste.

“In a strong economy, imported technology will be cheaper and old technology will be more readily replaced, in this way increasing the levels of e-waste,” he says.

This means in weak economies, people tend to keep e-products longer because they cannot afford to dump them and buy new ones very often.

The head of communications at Zimbabwe’s Environmental Management Agency, Steady Kangata, believes the problem of e-waste in the country is consequently not so big ‑ yet.

“The increasing importation of electrical and electronic devices poses a big threat to the environment.

“The reduction in prices of ICT material has given birth to an upsurge of electronic device purchases.

“Some gadgets are second-hand products and come either as donations or at very cheap prices.

“Within a short space of time the gadgets are not working and companies dump them.”

He adds that the major generators of e-waste are companies that dump obsolete computers and related hardware, while individuals contribute by getting rid of old cellular phones.

Kangata says, “It is high time people employ waste management concepts that include, reuse, recycle, reduce, recover, redesign, refuse and rethink.

“Many e-gadgets have lead, which is harmful to the environment when dumped.

“The lead can be recovered properly and used in the manufacture of other devices.”

WorldLinks Zimbabwe, an organisation that facilitates use of computers, urges schools to bring obsolete computers to their workshop in Harare.

WorldLinks has a recouping programme where computers are broken down to their basic parts.

Reusable parts are put back to use and the rest is sent to municipal dumps and landfills for proper disposal.

However, with no incentives given to the schools as an encouragement to respond positively, the programme is facing challenges.

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.

There are several international agreements and conventions that seek to regulate disposal of such waste.

One is the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Waste and their Disposal of 1989.

The convention encourages creation and implementation of strong legislation dealing with disposal of such waste and radioactive materials.