SAFE DISPOSAL OF ELECTRONIC WASTE

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WHEN one thinks of waste disposal, the Guyanese mind usually runs on the ongoing confrontation between the Georgetown City Council and the various local authorities and the householders and businesses.

The local authorities have never been able to fulfil their mandate of regular and clean waste disposal and the Central Government has had to intervene with injections of large sums of money to keep the city of Georgetown tolerably clean. The kind of waste which generates the contentiousness we mentioned is usually household waste or cardboard boxes discarded by shops.

Over the last 50 or so years, a new type of waste has appeared, not only in Guyana but worldwide. This waste is known as ‘electronic waste’ or e-waste and it consists of discarded electronic equipment of every kind including computers, musical instruments and players, television sets, mobile telephones, calculators, refrigerators and so on. This waste is different from traditional household waste, since it could be dangerous to life and health.

When such waste began to accumulate in the developed countries more than half a century ago, they had not worked out ways of dealing with it and they resorted to dumping it in the developing countries by paying officials or even governments to receive it. Africa became a free and unchallengeable favourite dumping ground until one incident unexpectedly stymied the practice. In Nigeria, during the Ibrahim Babangida presidency, the captain of two ships laden with electronic waste paid off officials to permit them to dump the waste in a sparsely populated part of the coast.

In the meantime, environmentalists had quietly gotten word to the President of the wrong which was being done. After the ships had successfully dumped their garbage and were about to depart, Babangida had the ships seized and the crews imprisoned. The European nations from which the ships and crews had originated tried to obtain their release, but Babangida was resolute that they had to pick up every piece of waste and reload the ships before he would let them go. After paying a fine, they were released. All Africa now became aware of the dangers of electronic waste being dumped on their territory.

Such discarded electronic equipment consist of cathode ray tubes and other toxic materials such as lead, zinc, nickel, flame retardants, barium and chromium. Lead, for example, if released in the environment can cause damage to human blood and kidneys as well as to the central and peripheral nervous systems. Further, when e-waste is warmed up, toxic chemicals are released into the air, poisoning the atmosphere. When such waste is thrown into landfills, their toxic material seeps into the ground water, affecting land and sea animals.

In developed countries, they are now dealing with the problem of e-waste by recycling. Some parts of the discarded equipment or machines are still in very good condition and could be used in assembling new products. Other parts could be reduced to metals and can be reused in applications as varied as construction, flatware and jewellery. In Guyana, we could avoid the rapid accumulation of e-waste by proper maintenance of equipment, ensuring their longer life. We could also donate or even sell discarded equipment to others who may still be able to use them as they are or with minor repairs.

Guyana still does not have any specific or modern laws relating to the disposal of e-waste. Yet there are a number of positive actions which could be taken pending the passing of such legislation. Such actions could include widespread education on how to properly use electronic equipment so as to ensure that they would have a longer life-span. Along with such education could be the dissemination of the knowledge of the dangers of e-waste and how to treat such waste. There is no e-waste recycling company in Guyana and Go-Invest and other such agencies should try to attract investment in such companies by offering as liberal concessions as possible.

Some computer and cellphones sellers and importers have been doing some recycling in an informal way and these could be the bases of the recycling companies. Many of these persons who do the recycling are tradesmen and therefore Go-Invest and the Small Industries Bureau should assist them in formulating business plans.

In many jurisdictions, sellers of electronic equipment are compelled by Law to accept the discarded non-functioning equipment a consumer would have purchased from them. Such sellers are usually able to dispose of such equipment without loss. Pending this procedure becoming Law, the business community and government could take the initiative of establishing such a custom.

One scrap metal company, Eternity Investments, has been licensed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to collect and deal with e-waste. Other dealers, say in Berbice and Essequibo, could likewise be encouraged to enter the trade. Guyana has signed on to the Basel Convention which deals comprehensively with e-waste and we understand EPA is formulating legislation based on that Convention. We hope they would be successful in having Parliament pass this non-controversial legislation with some urgency. E-waste disposal is now a worldwide problem and Guyana could place itself in the mainstream of dealing with it.