02 February 2012

Focus on e-waste in Africa as computers and cell phones pose contamination risk

Submitted by Annemarie Roodbol

The technological explosion of the past three decades has brought about many advantages. Some of these include an increased ease in the way people are doing business both in the developed and developing world. Instant connectivity to the rest of the world has broadened the office space – you no longer have to sit in a room enclosed by four walls to be able to connect to global business partners who might be in another time zone.

Africa e-waste dumping ground
Indeed, few would argue that technological advances, in the fields of mobile telephony, computer hardware, broadcasting equipment and a host of others, have brought enormous benefits. However, there is also a flip side to these advances. An estimated 50 million tonnes of e-waste is generated globally each year and the world is increasingly becoming burdened by a staggering amount of discarded technology. E-waste, by the way, also includes discarded television sets, refrigerators, washing machines, dishwashers, different kinds of so-called environmentally friendly lighting including LED and CFL and even batteries.

Africa has become an e-waste dumping ground for the Western world. In some cases truly well-meaning organisations and individuals send discarded computers to African and other developing countries in large quantities in the mistaken belief that they are doing a good deed. However, a broken computer (or any other piece of broken technology), mostly cannot be put to good use, with the result that it ends up at landfill sites.

Heavy metals leaking into the ground
“Heavy metals, including cadmium, lead and beryllium leech into the ground at landfill sites,” says Keith Anderson, chairperson of eWASA (e-Waste Association of South Africa), a non-profit organisation that manages the establishment of a sustainable environmentally sound e-waste management system for the country. This is done by forming partnerships with manufacturers, vendors and distributors of electronic and electrical goods and e-waste handlers (including re-furbishers, dismantlers and recyclers). “Most of these sites are situated close to rivers and the contaminants eventually end up in the water.”

The waste is also dangerous to informal recyclers who use open flames to try to extract copper from equipment. The equipment contains poisonous gases which can be detrimental to the health of the unskilled person. It is therefore imperative to have guidelines and training initiatives in place to help skill people in safe ways of working with e-waste products.

Although Africa still receives thousands of tonnes of e-waste from foreign shores, African governments, including those of Ghana and Nigeria, are taking action to prevent this by forming partnerships with the Basel Action Network, a body established under the Basel Convention to monitor trans-boundary shipments of e-waste.

African Utility Week
eWASA is working on a Waste Management Plan that, if accepted by government, will set guidelines for the industry.

“The recycling and distribution of e-waste contributes to an increase in job opportunities. But we need to have guidelines in place to optimally manage and expand these opportunities,” says Anderson who in May will be one of the speakers at the African Utility Week (AUW) pre-conference workshop on e-waste in Johannesburg.

“Events like AUW are important in raising awareness and educating a large group of people,” says Anderson. “Brazil is an example of a developing country that is a leading light in the efficient management of e-waste. This is mainly because the authorities got their education priorities on the issue straightened out.”

eWASA is also working on incorporating the international standards as found under the European Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE) in the proposed Waste Management Plan.

By working with eWASA and establishing sound recovery systems, utilities can take steps to prevent e-waste becoming the scourge of the 21st century. The pre-conference AUW workshop on e-waste will help participants chart a course forward.

African Utility Week will focus on all aspects of the utility service sector on the continent with dedicated tracks on: Metering, Renewables, Water, Large Industry, Infrastructure Investment, Transmission & Distribution/Smart Grids, Generation and Waste Management.

Event dates:
Conference: 22-23 May 2012
Exhibition: 21-23 May 2012
Pre-conference workshops: 21 May 2012
Site visits: 24 May 2012

Website: www.african-utility-week.com 

Event location: Expo Centre, Johannesburg