Israr Ahmad is a 14-year-old daily wage worker at the Band-Road e-waste warehouse of a leading computer importer of Lahore. I saw him at the Lakshmi Chowk selling toys to the happy customers who reach this famous dinner spot of Lahore in the evening. The confident boy asked me if he can sit and play subway surfers on my unattended mobile which I agreed.
During our discussion, it was revealed that he suffers from tuberculosis at this young age. This is because his job is to burn the waste at the Ravi bank. He is an orphan earning bread and butter for his three sisters and widow mother. Despite the deadly disease, he is unable to afford treatment as one leave costs him Rs. 150, a little but much-needed amount for him and his family.
There are abundant Israr-like child scavengers in Pakistan who pick up things from e-waste sites and are the most likely victims of different diseases. The victims are not only the children but abounding adults, men, and women who are suffering from this sham trade cycle.
The International Labour Organization (ILO) describes that even a low level of exposure to lead, mercury, cadmium and other heavy metals can cause severe neurological damage among children and pregnant women.
Pakistan is a signatory of Basel Convention on the Control of Trans-Boundary Movement of Hazardous Waste and their Disposal, Rotterdam Convention on Prior Informed Consent for Certain Hazardous Chemicals, Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants and Vienna Convention, and Montreal Protocol on Ozone Depleting Substances (ODS). However, the country is a dump site for up to 46 percent of the world’s electronic waste, worth nearly US $9 billion, which is dumped each year through legal and illegal trading of the waste which is disguised as useable material. This figure has been estimated from the report United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) released in May 2015.
However, the country is a dump site for up to 46 percent of the world’s electronic waste, worth nearly US $9 billion, which is dumped each year through legal and illegal trading of the waste which is disguised as useable material. This figure has been estimated from the report United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) released in May 2015.
Discarded electrical or electronic devices or used electronics that are destined for reuse, resale, salvage, recycling, or disposal are considered as e-waste. The re-use of this e-waste in developing countries like Pakistan is leading to adverse human health effects and environmental pollution.
Pakistan’s major electronic sales (Computers, Laptops, Input-output devices, and smartphones) come from the sale of e-waste. Electronic scrap components, such as CPUs, contain potentially harmful elements such as lead, cadmium, beryllium, or brominated flame retardants.
In the world, each year, the electronic industry – one of the world’s largest and fastest-growing trade – generates up to 41 million tons of e-waste from goods such as computers and smartphones. Forecasts say that figure may reach 50 million tons by 2017. According to Malik Kaleem Ahmad, a presidential candidate for the Hafeez Centre Traders Association, a primary computer, accessories, and mobile/smartphone market in Pakistan, every year 0.5 million second hand (e-waste) CRTs, and LCD/LEDs are imported and sold in Pakistan. These CRTs (Cathode Ray Tubes) have relatively high concentrations of lead and phosphors (not to be confused with phosphorus), both of which are necessary for the display and are nearly impossible to recycle.
Last month in the USA, WASTECON 2016, a global conference on e-waste management, in a joint statement urged the manufacturers to take responsibility for the safe disposal of the electronic products they make after the end of product life. Safe disposal of e-waste is threatening to become a headache and fiscal drain for countries across the globe as it takes huge funds from the public money to do so. Experts are of the view that unless the manufacturers take this due responsibility, governments might not meet the global expectations for safe disposal of the same.
However, manufacturers are just producing, selling, making profits, and crafting developing countries as junk sites for the e-waste of these products. All major manufacturers across the globe have stepped back from recycling old televisions, computers, and other electronic equipment; local recycling programs are finding it more difficult and costly to safely dispose of them.
Most Pakistanis prefer to purchase used computers from the markets that offer them after selection from the e-waste dump sites instead of buying a brand new computer because of the high prices.
The prices are affordable, and most people prefer spending less than more in this harsh economic time. The importation of e-waste in most developing countries is illegally done usually with someone who is an insider within the government agencies who authorize containers with e-waste into the country. But this saving has enormous economic and health repercussions. It not only discourages foreign direct investment in the manufacturing sector but also puts the lives of millions at risk.
John Shegerian, Chairman, and CEO of Electronic Recyclers International (ERI), America’s leading recycler of electronic waste, called the practice of exporting electronics a severe environmental hazard and irresponsible shortcut that leads to a number of major problems ranging from environmental hazards and human rights abuses to digital security breaches. He shared that recently, the ERI secretly planted GPS trackers into 205 old printers and monitors and then delivered them to US charities and recyclers.
The effort revealed that of those that were handed over to American electronics recyclers, 40 percent did not get recycled in the US as expected by them, but were instead exported to highly polluting and unsafe operations in developing countries including Pakistan.
Environmental Services Association Education Trust (ESAET), in 2015 issued a report named, “Waste Crime: Tackling Britain’s Dirty Secret” which revealed that in one year the country exported 0.6 million tons of E-waste and most of it went to Pakistan, Hong Kong, India, Bangladesh, and Vietnam. The EU additionally is producing 9 million tons of e-waste which get exported to developing countries like us.
The magnitude of the e-waste can be assessed by the fact that in the US alone, over 119,000 laptops and desktop computers are discarded every day.
In the port city of Karachi, Shershah is the largest market for e-waste in the country. This market is a hub for all smuggled and legally imported e-waste which is then distributed to other cities for further sale and distribution. Developed countries know that the disposal and recycling of electronic waste may pose a significant risk to their workers and communities (EIA 2011). So they export it to the developing countries which are even worst as the necessary infrastructures and technological systems to adequately recycle and dispose of e-waste are lacking and non-existent in them.
Talking to the MORE, Zaigham Abbas who is the Technical Officer (Chemicals) in the Ministry of Environment (Government of Pakistan) told that the government had taken several measures to control the import and safe disposal of present e-waste in Pakistan. Constitutionally, a body named Pakistan Environmental Protection Council (PEPC) is formed and is headed by the Prime Minister of Pakistan. This is the highest forum responsible for strategic policy decisions in the environment and sustainable development.
The ministry of environment in Pakistan has also established the Federal & Provincial Environmental Protection Agencies (EPA), enacted the Pakistan Environmental Protection Act 1997, Prepared and enforced the National Environment Quality Standards (NEQS) for monitoring of industrial and other environmental pollution.
In addition to this, the Environment Policy of Pakistan was approved on 29 June 2005. National Environmental Policy is an overarching framework for addressing all sectors of the environment at the national level. It also gives directions for addressing the cross-sectoral issues as well as underlying causes of environmental degradation and meeting international obligations.
Then there is another Pakistan Environmental Protection Act 1997 which claims to focus on protection, conservation, rehabilitation and improvement of the environment, prevention and control of pollution, and promotion of sustainable development.
Section 13 of the Pakistan Environmental Protection Act 1997, prohibits the import of hazardous waste and Section 14 disallows handling of hazardous elements. The ministry official was told about Israr Ahmad and that how he suffered from tuberculosis because of grave inefficiency in the implementation of abundant and excellent laws that existed to counter the e-waste import and for the safe disposal. Surprisingly, Abbas asserted that due to unemployment hundreds of workers, including teenage children, earn their livelihoods by dismantling the electronic scrap and extracting valuable components. He was unable to comprehend that how healthy employment could be for those workers and fatal for their families in the near future. However, he accepted that despite the beautiful laws, there was no proper system to recycle and dispose of e-waste in Pakistan, and called it a serious issue.
In Pakistan, the e-waste circuit boards imported as second-hand material originate from all over the world, including the US, Kuwait, Australia, Japan, and the UK. The ministry official claimed that only 2 percent of these computers could be reused; for the remaining machines, all of the metals and plastics are taken out to be re-sold, and all of this work is done by hand, and no protective equipment is used. The warehouse working conditions are terrible, and workers are exposed to toxic fumes from burning hardware.
With 133 million active mobile users in Pakistan, apart from the e-waste import, another aspect to this problem has emerged – The inland generated e-waste.
Every month, nearly 2 to 2.3 million mobile phones are imported in Pakistan that belongs to sellers of likes QMobile, Samsung, Huawei, Apple, Nokia, HTC, Lenovo, Sony, LG, and Haier. It is estimated that yearly around 24 million mobile phones are sold in Pakistan. This gives a clear insight into the amount of cell phone E-waste being generated here indigenously. The waste is generated from the fresh sales of laptops, monitors, TVs, CRTs, Input-Output devices and LE/CDs is a huge addition to this.
University of New South Wales researcher, Professor Veena Sahajwalla has recently shown that a ton of mobile phones (about 6,000 handsets), for example, contains about 130kg of copper, 3.5kg of silver, 340 grams of gold, and 140 grams of palladium, worth tens of thousands of dollars. She is a materials scientist who wants to fundamentally change how we perceive our electronic waste: not as trash, but as treasure. Globally e-waste is an intensifying problem. Between 2009 and 2014, the amount of e-waste generated worldwide doubled, hitting 42m metric tons per year. According to a report by the United Nations University, the combined estimated value of the resources embedded in that waste was US$52bn.
In a statement, she said, “We already understand the value of sourcing green energy from the sun. Similarly, we can source valuable green materials from our waste. ‘Mining’ our waste stockpiles makes sense for both the economy and the environment”. Until now, safe e-waste processing has been restricted to high-cost industrial-scale facilities with very large furnaces, leaving many countries around the world, without a viable solution. CleanUp Australia estimates almost 90 percent of the four million televisions and three million computers Australians buy each year will end up in a landfill.
She is currently developing the prototype for a low-cost alternative to industrial-scale smelting, which will be based at UNSW. The concept is simple yet innovative: portable micro-factories, roughly the size of a shipping container, which can be deployed at collection sites in suburbs, remote communities, and throughout the developing world. Sahajwalla is collaborating with the industry on the project.
These micro-factories will churn out high-value metal alloys, ceramics, composites, and nanomaterial, while simultaneously eliminating any hazardous impact. As the materials already have market value, they could benefit niche manufacturers producing everything from jewelry to marine hardware, says Sahajwalla.
Japan too is exploring the feasibility of forging the Olympic 2020 medals using precious metals salvaged from electronic waste. Members of Japan’s Olympic organizing committee tabled the idea to government officials and companies earlier this year. Historically, these medals have been produced by the Olympic host cities after acquiring the metal from mining firms. But Japan, which lacks its own mineral resources, is keen to take the theme of a sustainable future a step further. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has developed strict criteria for the world’s greatest sporting event, and this extends to how the medals should be produced. The Rio Olympics, for example, used gold that was extracted without the use of mercury and a third of the silver and bronze used came from recycled sources.
It is the right time that our government, instead of deceiving the environment and the world with beautifully drafted laws shall start implementing them with full vigor. We are not destined to be a world junk site, are we?