Dangerous labour: The little-known ‘e-waste’ phenomenon

http://dawn.com/news/1032967/dangerous-labour-the-little-known-e-waste-phenomenon

Updated 2013-07-30 13:51:18

RAWALPINDI: Akash Ali is a nine-year-old labourer who works at a warehouse on Rawalpindi’s College Road. He suffers from asthma, but he seems unaware of the health and environmental hazards attached to his job.

Akash works for a warehouse of electronic waste (e-waste). “My father has died and now I’m the only breadwinner of my family,” he told Dawn.com, adding that he has a mother, two younger brothers and a sister to support. E-waste includes old computers, television sets, mobile phones, printers, fax machines and electronic games.Most of the material contains toxic material which poses a serious risk to health, especially for the labourers involved in physically handling the material.

He earns 90 rupees daily by cleaning old computers and their accessories, including key boards and printed circuit boards. “Sometimes I am also assigned to burn the old and discarded electronic material from where I think I contracted the asthma,” he explains.

The owner of the warehouse, meanwhile, declined to talk on the health hazards his employees faced. What is certain, however, is that the relevant authorities have been unable to devise a cogent policy to handle the menace of e-waste.

Pakistan has virtually become a dumping ground for such toxic material. It receives thousands of tons every year from developed countries like the United States and United Kingdom.

A report titled “Recycling – From E-waste to Resources” prepared by the United Nations Environment Programme and released in July 2009 says that e-waste has become a huge and growing problem in the modern world. In the US alone, over 112,000 laptops and desktop computers are discarded every day.

The report says around 40 million metric tons of e-waste are produced globally each year, and about 13 percent of that weight is recycled mostly in developing countries including Pakistan, Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka. About 9 million tons of this waste is produced by the European Union.

China and India have strengthened their laws about the import of e-waste from developed countries; so it is likely the illegal waste will increase manifold in Pakistan in the coming months.

Shershah in Karachi remains one of the major markets for e-waste in Pakistan where all sorts of electronic and electrical goods, spare parts, computers and smuggled goods arrive by sea and land for sale or further distribution to other cities.

An International Labour Organisation (ILO) report titled, “The global impact of e-waste: Addressing the challenge,” says the demand for e-waste began to grow when scrap yards found a way of extracting valuable substances such as copper, iron, silicon, nickel and gold during the recycling process.

The report says that even a low level of exposure of children and pregnant women to lead, mercury, cadmium and other heavy metals can cause serious neurological damage. Child scavengers who pick up things from e-waste sites are the most likely victims of different diseases.

The main risks to human health and the environment arise from the presence in e-waste of heavy metals, Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), flame retardants and other potentially hazardous substances. If improperly managed, such substances may pose significant human and environmental health risks.

Asif Shuja Khan, Director General Pakistan Environmental Protection Agency, says the informal e-waste activities are posing a serious threat to environment and human health as agricultural lands and livestock are getting contaminated by the waste in some parts of the country.

He says the risks can be lowered if proper measures are adopted and the recycling industry is legalised through proper legislation. “Proper ventilation and light should be ensured at the recycling and dumping sites to minimise the health risks.”

Khan says workers in the e-waste sites should also wear appropriate safety equipment such as goggles, gloves and arm protection. “Smoking, eating and drinking should be prohibited in the work areas and workers should also be advised to wash their hands with proper detergents before meals.”

He says that a number of foreign companies have contacted the Pakistan EPA to start work in the recycling industry and reuse e-waste in the country, if the business is given legal cover through proper legislation.

“We will take up the issue with the relevant authorities both in the centre and provinces to legislate on import, handling and management of the e-waste,” he says, adding Pakistan can earn millions of rupees, thousands of people can get jobs and health and environmental risks can also be minimised if the business is legalised through proper legislation.

So far, the business of importing e-waste and its subsequent recycling at different places in the country remains illegal under the Basel Convention, to which Pakistan is a party, but it is going on without any check. The convention on the Control of Trans-boundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal bans the exchange of hazardous waste, including e-waste, between developed and developing countries.

As Pakistan has not framed any particular rules and regulations to regulate the e-waste; so the importers keep benefiting from the loopholes. The e-waste is imported from developed countries under the disguise of “second-hand goods” and then recycled here for reuse.

Under Articles 4 and 5 of the convention Pakistan is bound to take “appropriate and legal” measures and to establish a competent authority to manage and regulate the e-waste. The relevant ministries including the commerce and information technology departments have so far done nothing in this regard.

The commerce ministry’s deputy secretary (foreign trade), Muhammad Ashraf, admits that no specific rules and regulations are framed to regulate and manage the e-waste. However, he was quick to clarify that the ministry itself doesn’t initiate any policy on any issue – rather it is the responsibility of the stakeholders to highlight a problem and submit their proposals with the ministry for the formulation of a formal policy.

“Under the Basel convention, the ministry is so far only looking into environmental and health risks of plastic waste being imported from different countries,” he says. Ashraf says a formal strategy on the import of e-waste may be formulated if certain health and environmental hazards linked to the waste are brought into notice of the ministry.

Officials in the IT ministry also remain oblivious to health and environmental hazards of e-waste; so nothing is being planned to regulate the waste or take up the issue with relevant authorities for redress.

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