Discarded electrical and electronic equipment (such as phones, laptops, fridges, sensors and TVs), which is referred to as e-waste is becoming a huge problem, needing urgent intervention globally.
According to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), e-Waste is a growing challenge, matching the growth of the information and communication technology (ICT) industry.ITU informed that approximately 50 million metric tonnes (Mt) of e-waste are produced worldwide every year, but only 20 per cent of this is recycled. The rest 80 per cent ends up in landfill, burned or illegally traded, or languishes and forgotten in homes around the world. A recent study found that there are an estimated 40 million electronic devices sitting unused in homes across the UK alone.
A telecoms expert, Kehinde Aluko told The Guardian that African countries like Nigeria bear huge brunt of e-waste, because of the estimated 500 containers, each carrying about 500,000 used computers and other electronic equipment that enter the country’s ports every month from the United States, Europe and Asia.
Aluko noted that more than half of used electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) imported to the country is near end of life or completely damaged. He stressed that European countries shipped up to 60,000 metric tonnes of used EEE to Nigeria in 2016 alone and almost a third of these products were un-useable.
According to him, a large percentage of used EEE shipped into Lagos finds its way to Computer Village, Ikeja, the IT market, where people troop in to buy used phones and laptops or to repair old ones. “E-waste is generated on a large scale daily,” he stressed.ITU Secretary-General, Houlin Zhao, noted that since getting to office in 2014, he has upgraded his mobile phone three times “and every time, the old mobile was recycled or donated to charity for further use. But sadly, this is not the case for every mobile phone around the world.”
Zhao noted that while technology is a force for good, people must be ready to face the challenges that the rapidly advancing pace of today’s technology brings, which includes the growing global issue of e-waste.
According to him, e-waste contains substances – such as mercury, cadium and lead – that can be hazardous to human health and the environment if they are not dealt with properly.
While that challenge remains, ITU noted that e-waste also presents significant opportunities.It noted that addressing e-waste supports the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals, playing a big contribution to addressing SDG 3, 8, 9, 11, 12 and 13. A medical expert in Nigeria, Dr. Tolani Ogundipe, who spoke with The Guardian, said efforts must be channeled to tackle the menace because of the adverse effects it can bring.
Ogundipe said although e-waste is informally processed in many regions; high-volume informal recycling has been reported in China, Ghana, Nigeria, India, Thailand, the Philippines, and Vietnam. She said findings from plausible outcomes associated with exposure to e-waste including change in thyroid function, changes in cellular expression and function, adverse neonatal outcomes, changes in temperament and behaviour, and decreased lung function.
“Boys aged 8–9 years living in an e-waste recycling town had a lower forced vital capacity than did those living in a control town. Significant negative correlations between blood chromium concentrations and forced vital capacity in children aged 11 and 13 years were also reported. Findings from most studies showed increases in spontaneous abortions, stillbirths, and premature births, and reduced birthweights and birth lengths associated with exposure to e-waste. People living in e-waste recycling towns or working in e-waste recycling had evidence of greater DNA damage than did those living in control towns,” she stated.
Nonetheless, the United Nations arm in charge of global communications noted that if treated properly through recycling chains and appropriate disposal methods, e-waste could be worth $62.5 billion per year, and subsequently create millions of new ‘clean and green’ jobs.ITU said that recycling e-waste can also reduce the pressure on high-value and increasingly limited natural resources, namely gold, platinum and cobalt. This has the bonus effect of reducing carbon dioxide emissions as compared to raw resource extraction.
Tackling the menace challenge, ITU said collaboration among academia, small- and medium-sized enterprises, entrepreneurs, civil society and multinational companies can help to create a circular economy for technology whereby the environmental and health risks are reduced while creating decent work for millions of people globally.
At an industry level, the body said companies can establish responsible supply chain management, including ethical device disposal and educating consumers about the importance of appropriately recycling or disposing of their old ICT equipment.
According to it, legislation at a national level will also play a critical role in addressing the e-waste challenge. In Switzerland, for example, electronic retailers are legally required to accept consumer e-waste and send it to appropriate disposal facilities throughout the country.
ITU posited that technology consumers can also play a big role in reducing e-waste if strategies including repairing ICT equipment rather than replacing it; wait to upgrade or exchange functional smartphones for the latest model; recycle ICT equipment at certified points or with disposal firms;resell ICT equipment to give it a ‘second life’, are followed adequately.
In 2017, just 20 per cent of e-waste was recycled and only 67 countries had developed e-waste legislation.The body said its flagship Connect 2030 Agenda – which was agreed to by all member states – commits to reduce the volume of redundant e-waste by 50 per cent.At the 2018 Plenipotentiary Conference, member states set a global e-waste target for 2023 to increase global e-waste recycling to 30 per cent and committed to raise the number of countries with e-waste legislation to 50 per cent.