The threat posed by E-waste

By Samantha Goerling ,

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A THREAT: E waste is a real concern for Samoa and the Pacific.

A THREAT: E waste is a real concern for Samoa and the Pacific.

The dangerous and growing stockpiles of E-Waste is a threat to Samoa – and the rest of the Pacific. 

E-Waste is any electrical good or electronic item that is disposed. 

Stewart Williams, the Pacific Hazardous Waste (PAC Waste) Project Manager at the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environmental Program (S.P.R.E.P) explained what this includes.

“We’re talking about things ranging from TV’s, monitors, mobile  phones, computers, printers, all the cables that go with them and everything that we think of in the electrical revolution,” he said.

This type of waste has been increasing around the world over the past few years and continues to do so at an ever-increasing rate. 

Mr. Williams explained that “there has been a long term accumulation of E-Waste,” and that the technological revolution has accelerated this accumulation. 

“As our interest in technology increases so too does the physical quantity of E-Waste increase exponentially as well. That includes in the Pacific Islands. Even in parts of the world that have a lower economic base, electronic goods are becoming very, very visible and very high in volume.

“Their obsolescence is increasing as well. It can be common that a mobile phone after one year is now waste and that it gets thrown aside.”

The continual stockpiling of E-Waste poses a very real risk around the world, including here in Samoa. 

“E-Waste contains heavy metals which are an environmental and human health risk. Some of them also contain different chemical components in the plastics. And those plastics, especially older plastics, they can leach or even worse if they are burnt they can release dioxins and fumets which are contaminants subject to international treaty.”

Under the Basel Convention, which Samoa is party to; countries have the obligation of “ensuring the availability of adequate disposal facilities for the environmentally sound management of hazardous or other wastes.” 

Environmentally sound management is then clarified in the convention as “taking all practicable steps to ensure that hazardous wastes or other wastes are managed in a manner which will protect human health and the environment against the adverse effects which may result from such wastes.”

When asked what this would entail in terms of E-Waste Management, Mr. Williams said that it certainly is not what is occurring at present. 

“Environmentally sound management would definitely not be the current practice of it going to landfill. What you want with E-Waste is you would want it returned and disassembled and then the components either re-used in a way where the contaminants can’t come into contact with people or the environment.”

Best practice, he explained, would involve breaking the E-Waste into its component parts. The plastic could go to landfill, as here it does not hold any economic value to export and no subsidies are available. However the other components including the heavy metals would need to be sent overseas.

“There is no ability to recycle or reuse them here so a disassembling and an export of that material. It shouldn’t stay here; there is not a capability to dispose of those e-waste components in the Pacific.”

Currently no waste management system for e-waste exists in Samoa and the majority of it ends up in Tafaigata landfill. This facility is not lined, posing a major environmental and health risk. 

“That means that anything that goes in them can eventually get through into the ground water and escape into the environment.”

Of particular danger in unlined landfills are cathode ray tubes. These are found in old bulky television sets and computer monitors.

“Cathode ray tubes contain a lot of lead. The glass in them contains lead. Lead is toxic to humans and the environment. It accumulates in the food chain and causes all kinds of physiological impacts, all sorts of diseases. 

“You’ve got to be a lot more careful about what you put in it than in landfill in Australia or New Zealand. It means things like these TVs, cathode ray tubes are not suitable.”

Other forms of poor processing of e-waste are also of major concern.

“As a result of being broken up, exposed to the environment or burnt it is now releasing chemicals that are harmful to the individual that is doing it and to the environment that it is in.”

“If you burn it, the fumes that come off it contain contaminants that are dangerous to you. If you burn it as well some of the heavy metals like lead volatilise and you end up breathing in lead fumes. “Once it’s broken up, the metals in it are now exposed in a way which they will start to leach into the water. They can end up in soil.”  A major source of e-waste, Mr. Williams identified as coming from donated second hand electronics like computers “that ends up almost instantaneously being e-waste.” Often Pacific Island countries have been on the receiving end of donated shipments which contain computers of different types, brands, with different software and some are even “riddled with viruses.”

“I think this is a reprehensible practice and I think that well meaning organisations around the world should not be gifting second hand electrical goods to Pacific Island Countries. If they want to give them something let them buy new material that is properly supported and has this take back condition.”

A corporate and government level means that could be used to prevent this happening in the future is called Extended Producer Responsibility. This entails an agreement between the electronic producer and the recipient that at the end of the item’s lifespan, the producer takes them back. This would prevent government departments and organisations from being stuck with e-waste. 

To manage e-waste, an Advance Recycling Fee could be implemented. Similar to a Container Deposit Fee it involves a small fee upon importation of the item which is pooled and used to fund recycling at the end of its life. 

Invaluable in assisting government implementation of such a fee, would be modelling by Pac Waste done on customs data, explained Williams.

“The Samoan government have given us customs import data for the last five years of electronic goods. So we’re using that as a basis to form an e-waste data base to show trends. Now how this is important is in terms of modelling so that if the Samoan Government then wants to look at having container deposit legislation or advance recycling fee or other customs duties that they can see how much is coming in and it will give them an idea of how much they would have to set the duty at so they would have sufficient funds to manage e-waste under that.”

The three main streams where e-waste has stockpiled and continues to grow, according to Mr. Williams, is in government, businesses and households.

In order to address the stockpiles, PAC Waste is looking into training recyclers on how to process e-waste into a more economical form to export. 

“Processing of e-waste means that you train a group of people to disassemble it. What they do is they break e-waste down into its constituent parts. The aim would be for this reduced volume material to then be exported as e-scrap. And e-scrap has high value.

 “Samoa has three recyclers here. They have dabbled a bit in e-waste. So what Pac Waste will do is we will be bringing trainers in to train those who might potentially receive e-waste. We will give them advice on how to break down, how to package it and potential places that they can send it.

“Breaking it down rather than sending it off whole, what it means is that you are creating some jobs in Samoa.”

A similar approach may also be piloted for the cathode ray tubes. 

“We might be doing a pilot here, to take a shipping load of processed cathode ray tubes. We would aim to process them here, it reduces the volume, and we can see what that would cost so at least it gives an idea of a management cost,” said Williams.

Another initiative to be undertaken by Pac Waste is the preparation of an e-waste management strategy that could be adopted by Samoa or any other nations in the Pacific. 

“The Pac Waste Project will pay a consultant and that consultant will prepare a model strategy on behalf of the project and then that is a resource that Pacific Island nations will be able to use.”

Another major project, which aims to promote regional initiatives on solid waste management, is the JPRISM Project. After five years the project came to its conclusion on Friday and among its key recommendations was for the proposed Advance Recycling Fee, or container deposit legislation framework to be submitted to Cabinet by March this year. Another of the recommendations was the submission to Cabinet by the same time of a National Waste Management Strategy, as there has only been a draft since 2008. 

Stewart Williams stressed that the work of organisations like Pac Waste and JPRISM are enabling, but can only make headway with commitment and drive from the appropriate actors.

“This is training and giving information to the private sector and the government on what to do. The government itself has to have the will to be able to put into place the information and the tools and the assistance that is provided by the Pac Waste Project and the JPRISM project.”

© Samoa Observer 2016

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