The Sunday News
Vincent Gono, Features Editor
MS Sindisiwe Ncube coughs uncontrollably and spits thick dark phlegm. She complains of a throat irritation to her colleague as they sift through a heap of garbage for recycling while inhaling smoke from a nearby heap of electronic waste (e-waste) that was burning, sending a black cloud of toxic smoke into the atmosphere.
She is a single mother of one who lives in the sprawling squatter camp of Ngozi Mine in Bulawayo and has made a modest living selling recyclable waste to companies in the capital. Although she confirms getting something out of her labour, she thinks her cough is a result of the toxic smoke from e-waste that greets her nostrils each time she visits the dumpsite to retrieve valuables.
This is despite Statutory Instrument 72 of 2009 on air emissions which prohibits open burning of waste and encourages incineration which is hardly followed.
“I have not been to a doctor but I am worried about my coughing, my health. I think I breathe too much of these toxic substances that emanate from burning electric gadgets and other plastics,” she said.
She suggested that there should be a separate dumpsite for electronic waste disposal which the country does not regulate, at least for now, according to the Environmental Management Agency (Ema). Electronic waste or e-waste refers to remains of electrical or electronic devices such as computers, television sets, stoves, laptops, cartridges, refrigerators, printers, cellphones, microwaves and other electrical appliances, which would have completed their life cycles in the homes and industries and then disposed.
These and other electrical consumables remain a looming environmental and health disaster in most developing countries that are taken as convenient dumping grounds of second hand electrical goods manufactured by developed countries. The technological revolution that the world finds itself immersed in has in the most positive sense achieved its intended objective of making work a lot easier, increasing connectivity and trans-boundary linkages but on the leeside it has created an unimaginable environmental catastrophe in the form of electronic waste (e-waste).
Most African countries including Zimbabwe have been caught pants down not only in the race for technological advancement but in developing enough space and proper strategies for electronic waste disposal (e-waste) where increased consumerism has not been matched with appropriate disposal systems and hence e-waste was becoming a real danger.
In Zimbabwe there is no specific regulation on e-waste disposal with the Environmental Management Agency confirming that e-waste is becoming an environmental crisis and is growing out of control if solid action is not taken. Most of the e-waste cause an environmental hazard when improperly handled, transported and disposed because they contain toxic heavy metals such as lead, mercury and cadmium which pollutes both the soil and underground water.
Harare Institute of Technology’s Dr Anthony Phiri — a waste management expert said although Ema had the waste management strategy and policy which could be accessed, the two existed at policy level and what lacked was implementation action plans. He said e-waste was the new challenge that Ema was struggling to deal with to ensure the right to a clean environment as enshrined in the Constitution.
“In terms of general waste disposal we currently have two real engineered landfills at Mimosa and Ngezi mines. The rest are dumpsites which cause pollution. As a country we are far from understanding the importance of these practices. It is a way of resources conservation. Other countries are no long using virgin resources and this is where we should be leading rather than exporting our waste which are our resources,” said Dr Phiri.
On electronic waste such waste from cellphones and computers, he said they contain a range of metal chemicals such as mercury, palladium, gold etc which are carcinogenic. He added that disposal of these lead to accumulation in the environment where they get into the food chain system.
“The consumption of food or animals with these metals leads to bio accumulation,” he added.
Dr Phiri added that it was sad that developing countries were consumers of second-hand electronic gadgets which they have no means of disposing.
“In efforts to bridge the digital divide there has been an increase in the importation of second-hand electronic goods to Africa. Zimbabwe has also seen an upsurge in demand for cheap electronic goods from countries such as China and Japan, however, some of these devices have ended up as junk.
“E-waste needs proper handling, especially at their end of life-cycle because they contain hazardous substances, which have the potential to harm both the environment and human health. For example, research has shown that an average computer may contain up to 1 000 toxins, such as mercury and heavy metals which damages the nervous system, the brain, causes cancer and birth defects,” he added.
The lack of policy and legislation on e-waste in Zimbabwe has also seen little action being taken in the proper handling and recovery of such waste. The Environmental Management Act (20:27) prohibits the discharge of hazardous substances into the environment, but there is no specific legislation regulating e-waste.
There is consensus however, on the need to have a standalone legislative framework on e-waste for the country that will help in ensuring the proper handling and disposal of e-waste. Environmental Management Agency (Ema)’s environmental education and publicity manager Mrs Amkela Sidanke confirmed that there was an increasing trend where people were disposing toxic electronic waste.
She said Ema remains mandated to enforce general waste management regulations but currently there were no regulations for e-waste. She said Ema together with other relevant stakeholders was assisting Ministry of Information, Technology and Communication (ICT) in crafting regulations on e-waste.
“Ema remains mandated to enforce general waste management regulations but currently there is no regulations foe electronic waste. We are working with the Ministry of ICT in promoting organisations that can take up e-waste for recycling such as Enviro Serve which is into awareness raising on e-waste and has been issued with a license to export e-waste. We are also encouraging sorting at source of waste to recover recyclables and e-waste included for recycling purposes.
Mrs Sidanke said they were evoking basic solid waste regulations (Ema 20:27 section 83 ARW SI 6 of 2007) for prosecution of those that are found dumping waste and e-waste included at undesignated places.
She said there were no disposal systems in the country for e-waste as yet but encouraged recycling and called for research and development on e-waste disposal.
Mrs Sidanke confirmed that e-waste products were harmful because they contain toxic material that, if inhaled or ingested, can have far-reaching effects on people’s health.
In Zimbabwe however, there are few companies that recycle e-waste although there are calls to promote reuse and recycling. It is imperative to emphasise that sound e-waste management requires holistic approaches, and the global world must also assist developing countries in handling e-waste. There is also need for global best practices and standards which are then supported by regional and local standards.
Recycling of e-waste will not only improve environmental health, but job opportunities will also be created. With Zimbabwe’s high unemployment rates, the strengthening of e-waste recycling initiatives will go a long way in empowering people and uplifting their living standards.