Tuesday, April 14, 2009

E-waste in Ghana – Anti-dumping legislation soon

By Emmanuel K. Dogbevi

Ghana’s Communications Minister has given hints of the possibility of government enacting legislation to stop the dumping of e-waste into Ghana, in a telephone interview with ghanabusinessnews.com Tuesday April 14, 2009.

Mr. Haruna Iddrisu said, “we have taken a serious view of the situation and we are considering the passing of anti-dumping legislation, particularly of used computers.”

According to the minister, most of the computers that arrive in the country have no use. He however, said he has no idea of the amount of e-waste that comes into the country’s waste stream.

Mr. Haruna Iddrisu, also told ghanabusinessnews.com that the Communications Ministry is in discussions with the Ministry of Finance “to impose prohibitive tariffs on the importation of used computers into the country.”

The fact that Ghana is a major dumping ground for e-waste from the US, Europe and other countries is undisputed, as evidence at the Agbogbloshie scrap yard and the number of used computer shops around the country have shown. The contents of some containers arriving at the Tema harbour have also revealed increasing amounts of e-waste entering the country, but steps towards stemming the ominous tide are slow.

Since April 2008, when the country’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced the formation of a committee to deal with the situation nothing concrete has happened.

Much of what has happened, have been paper work and tough talk by public officials who appear not to be fully aware of the specific extent of the dumping and its measured effects on the country’s environment and human health.

Indeed, much of what has been done in concrete terms in direct relations to the dumping of e-waste into Ghana, have been done by foreign countries.

The European media also, unlike the Ghanaian media has given the situation serious coverage and broadcast.

For instance, the British government is investigating alleged dumping of e-waste into Ghana following media reports and pressure from international and British NGOs and some of its citizens. In February 2009, a 46-year-old South Sussex man was arrested on suspicion of exporting e-waste, the destination country was however, not mentioned. He is due to appear in court in May 2009.

Following that a container full of broken electronics equipment destined to Ghana was arrested at the port of Amsterdam, and a few days later eight men were arrested in connection with dumping e-waste in Ghana. Five of the men arrested are Ghanaians and the other three are citizens of Turkey - these men are currently due for trial.

Moreover, in Ghana one cannot find specific data on how much of the developed world’s e-waste comes into the country, because records are simply not kept.

But available data shows that as much as 75% of the 8.7 million tons of e-waste generated in the European Union cannot be accounted for, despite stringent regulations for recycling e-waste. In the US the figure is said to be about 80% or more because the amount of e-waste which is reported for recovery includes some of the e-waste exported to developing countries, according to Greenpeace, the international environmental group.

Ghana’s case requires urgent attention, because should the side effects of the cocktail of toxic chemicals in e-waste hit the country, it would be disastrous, considering the fact that the country has no capacity either scientifically or medically to deal with the problem.

Ghana is a signatory to the Basel Convention, the international convention on the control of transboundary movements of hazardous wastes and their disposal. The EU also has the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) regulation to which its member countries subscribe. The WEEE directive stipulates that Information Technology (IT) manufacturers are legally responsible for the safe disposal of their products, and are obliged to ensure all products are disposed of in an environmentally friendly manner themselves or sign up with a government-approved waste-handling firm to do it on their behalf. And under this regulation, recycling companies receive some public funding to collect and properly dispose of e-waste safely.

But it appears some individuals have found loopholes in the system and are exploiting it by conniving with some organisations to collect broken electronics and electrical items for onward shipment to Ghana and other developing countries under the guise of aid. Some even sell these out as secondhand items. The broken items end up being sold to scrap dealers who dismantle and sell the parts, after burning the cables to extract the copper.

What is e-waste?

E-waste is the generic name for electronics wastes. These are discarded electronics devices or broken electronics or electrical items that come into the waste stream from several sources. They include gadgets like televisions, personal computers (PCs), telephones, air conditioners, cell phones, and electronic toys.

The list can further be widened to include appliances such as lifts, refrigerators, washing machines, dryers, kitchen equipment or even air crafts.

Dangerous Chemicals

Electronics equipment is one of the largest known sources of heavy metals, toxic materials and organic pollutants in city waste.

E-waste is known to contain dangerous chemical pollutants that are released into the atmosphere and underground water.

The modes of disposal, which include dumping old gadgets into landfills or burning in smelters, also expose the environment and humans to a cocktail of toxic chemicals and poison. These chemicals contain substances like lead, mercury and arsenic.

The cathode ray tubes (CRTs) in most computer monitors and television screens have x-ray shields that contain 4 to 8 pounds of lead, mostly embedded in glass.

Flat screen monitors that are mostly used in laptops do not contain high concentrations of lead, but most are illuminated with fluorescent lights that contain some mercury.

A PC’s central processing unit (CPU), the module containing the chip and the hard disk, typically contains toxic heavy metals such as mercury (in switches), lead (in solder on circuit boards), and cadmium (in batteries).

Plastics used to house computer equipment and cover wire cables to prevent flammability often contain polybrominated flame retardants, a class of dangerous chemicals. Studies have shown that ingesting these substances may increase the risk of cancer, liver damage, and immune system dysfunction.

Lead, mercury, cadmium, and polybrominated flame retardants are all persistent, bio-accumulative toxins (PBTs), that can create environmental and health risks when computers are manufactured, incinerated, landfilled or melted during recycling. PBTs, in particular are a dangerous class of chemicals that linger in the environment and accumulate in living tissues.

And because they increase in concentration as they move up the food chain, PBTs can reach dangerous levels in living organisms, even when released in minute quantities. PBTs are harmful to human health and the environment and have been associated with cancer, nerve damage and reproductive disorders.

Looked at individually, the chemicals contained in e-waste are a cocktail of dangerous pollutants that kill both the environment and humans slowly.

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