Factories run nonstop, conveyor belts spew out electronic products faster than before and surely precision in production and the market orientation that goes with it falls to be the cutting edge of the competition. As technology changes at the speed of lightning, the consumer is bombarded left, right and centre with latest e-products. The big question remains, what will become of the mounds of e-products that are either classified as obsolete by technological change or irreparable defects?
Academicians define e-waste as discarded electrical or electronic devices. Used electronics which are destined for reuse, resale, salvage, recycling, or disposal are also considered e-waste.
The World Health Organisation says increased usage of electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) is on the rise and the amount of electrical and electronic waste (e-waste) produced each day is equally growing enormously around the globe.
Source of informal employment
Downtown the dusty streets of the old town in Lilongwe, one finds a number of technicians modifying or repairing e-products such as television sets, refrigerators, hi-fis, DVD players and the list go on. Their customers bring the gadgets but at times they get the merchandise from disposal sites.
One James Nyengeni a resident of Lilongwe and a technician himself confided in MBC that from discarded electronic items, he makes good monies to the effect of meeting educational needs for his dependants and running his family.
“This is a job that many a town folk despise. It’s a blue collar profession. We get dirty to amass these used electronics. But after doing all the repairs and modifications we resell for a good fortune. I am managing to pay fees for my children and running my family with proceeds from used and discarded electronics,” said Nyengeni.
Concurring with Nyengeni is another Lilongwe resident Frank Banda who is also in the same business. He says as technology advances some of the gadgets contain sophisticated operating systems that cannot be repaired when they start malfunctioning as such they pile up for breaking.
He said, “I am more experienced in fixing the old TVs than the new models. The latest ones run on systems that are too advanced and once they develop fault we can’t repair, so we just keep them for the spare parts or throw them away if they aren’t good enough for breaking.”
A growing health hazard
According to the 2017 report by Global E-waste Monitor, in 2016 only, 44.7 million tonnes of e-waste were generated globally and the figures are soaring rapidly. The report highlights the need for better e-waste data and information for policymakers to track progress, identify the need for action, and to achieve sustainable development, including the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In developing or emerging industrialized countries some practices to recycle the products put many people at risk. These electronic products contain dangerous substances such as:
• Brominated flame retardants or polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)
Rising generation of e-waste on global scale
Humans get poisoned through inhalation of toxic fumes, as well as from accumulation of chemicals in soil, water and food. The effect to humans cannot be overemphasized as there’s disruption of the nervous, immune and digestive system consequently causing irreversible damage.
Gaps in policy guidance
In an interview with MBC, Clara Mwafulirwa, Communications Manager for Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (MACRA), admitted that there’s no mechanism for disposing of electronic waste or a means to ensure that they can be safely recycled.
She said, “The situation is very tricky. Many users of electronic appliances are not aware of the dangerous substances these gadgets contain.”
As a nation we do not have a clear cut policy on e-waste management and we tried to inquire more from Sangwani Phiri, Public Relations Officer in the Ministry responsible for environmental affairs.
Sangwani Phiri, PRO, Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs
“Electronic waste is quite a new phenomenon in the country. As a Department of environmental Affairs more so to the Ministry of Natural Resources, energy and Mining this is something new we have to delve into so that there’s no accumulation of electronic waste,” remarked Phiri.
How is it done elsewhere?
In one of the world largest economies China, the country uses a holistic approach narrowed down to 3Rs principle. According to Wikipedia the term refers to reduce, reuse and recycle, particularly in the context of production and consumption. It calls for an increase in the ratio of recyclable materials, further reusing of raw materials and manufacturing wastes, and overall reduction in resources and energy used. Through this concept, China laid down the following guidelines to control e-waste:
• Preventing illegal movement of electronic products through strengthening joint efforts by export and import countries.
• Intensifying border controls and cargo inspection.
• Monitoring and keep track of recyclables movement.
• Capacity building for e-wastes recycle and disposal in proper ways in developing countries in terms of monitoring, enforcement, technology and policymaking.
• Enhancing education and public participation including having clear lines on the role of NGOs in e-waste management.
In agreement with international standards is Billy Bray, Country Director for Waste Advisers in Malawi. He said the country is doing what it can to control e-waste by applying the Polluter Pay Principle. He said to some degree this helps to inculcate a sense of responsibility however lack of enforcement on the same is doing much harm than good.
Billy Bray, Country Director, Waste Advisers
“Other than the fundamental Polluter Pay Principle, The second principle to be promoted in Malawi is the “triple R” – Reduce, Re-use and Recycle (Reduce, repair and refurbish for the e-waste industry). As Malawi develops in terms of economy, there’s need to avoid the consumerism trap the developed countries fell in where laptops and cellphones are used for only 2 years maximum and upgraded for the sake of prestige and not value creation. If we can reduce and re-use, it puts less pressure on recycling. South Africa is the only African country I know which has an official e-waste business. I guess as a country we can do better,” observed Bray.
Borrowing a leaf from other countries, Malawi needs timely formulation of policies and enforcement of the guiding principles to defuse the ticking time bomb on waste management thereby shaking off the tentacles of e-waste.