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Regulating electronic wastes and health impacts on consumers, environment

*Regulatory authorities, experts and public policy campaigners advocate various measures to protect the consumers’ and animal health besides the environment by ensuring that discarded electronic products around homes, businesses and offices are recycled to preserve the ecosystem

Gbenga Kayode | ConsumerConnect

The ever-increasing electronic wastes (e-wastes) globally, have harmful effects on the health of humans, animals, and the environment aside from the overlooked risk of having consumers’ data stolen from such disused devices that often litter the environment.

E-wastes describe a situation in an Information and Communication Technology (ICT) and telecom ecosystem in which we have consumer electronic products that have come towards the end of their “useful life”.

ConsumerConnect reports that as part of measures to protect the human and animal health besides the environment, such electronic products found around your office, such as computers, laptops, copiers, printers, cell phones, and many more products can be recycled.

As regards the cogent reasons why e-wastes are fast becoming a global challenge in recent years, stakeholders have opined that recycling your used electronic devices is important in order to ensure that you are protecting the environment as well as your company, business or organisation.

What are e-wastes?

Experts say e-wastes can be classified on the basis of its composition and components. Ferrous and nonferrous metals, glass, plastics, pollutants, and other are the six categories of materials reported for e-waste composition.

E-Wastes photo collage  Credit: Mayer Alloys Corporation

Iron and steel constitute the major fraction in Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) materials, with plastics being the second largest.

Nonferrous materials, including metals such as copper and aluminum, and precious metals such as silver, gold, and platinum are third in abundance and have significant commercial value.

Toxic materials include lead and cadmium in circuit boards, lead oxide and cadmium in cathode ray tubes, mercury in switches and flat-screen monitors, brominated flame retardants on printed circuit boards, and plastic and insulated cables; when these exceed the threshold quantities, they are regarded as pollutants and can damage the environment if disposed of improperly.

Likewise, one of the most widely accepted classifications is based on European Union directives that divide e-wastes into the 10 following categories:

Large household appliances: refrigerators, freezers, washing machines, clothes dryers, dishwashers, electric cooking stoves and hot plates, microwaves, electric fans, and air conditioners.

Small household appliances: vacuum cleaners, toasters, grinders, coffee machines, appliances for haircutting and drying, tooth-brushing and shaving.

Information technology (IT) and telecommunications equipment: mainframes, minicomputers, personal computers, laptops, notebooks, printers, telephones, and cell phones.

Consumer equipment: radios, televisions, video cameras, video recorders, stereo recorders, audio amplifiers, and musical instruments.

Lighting equipment: straight and compact fluorescent lamps and high-intensity discharge lamps.

Electrical and electronic tools: drills, saws, sewing machines, soldering irons, equipment for turning, milling, grinding, drilling, making holes, folding, bending, or similar processing of wood and metal.

Toys, leisure equipment, and sporting goods: electric trains or racing car sets, video games, and sports equipment with electric elements.

Medical devices: radiotherapy equipment, cardiology, dialysis, pulmonary ventilators, nuclear medicines, and analysers.

Monitoring and control instruments: smoke detectors, heating regulators, and thermostats.

Automatic dispensers: for hot drinks, hot or cold bottles, solid products, money, and all appliances that automatically deliver various products.

Managing the mounting electronic wastes

Electronic wastes describe discarded electrical or electronic devices, and such used electronics which are destined for refurbishment, reuse, resale, salvage recycling through material recovery, or disposal are also considered e-wastes.

It is noted that informal processing of e-wastes, especially in developing countries and emerging markets can lead to adverse human health effects and environmental pollution.

L-R: Malam Farouk Salim, Director-General of SON and Dr. Aliu Jauro, Director-General of NESREA, collaborate on regulating E-Wastes in Nigeria

A report has also indicated that electronic scrap components, such as Central Processing Units (CPUs), contain potentially harmful materials, including lead, cadmium, beryllium, or brominated flame retardants that are harmful to consumers’ health and the ecosystem.

It has also been observed that recycling and disposal of e-wastes may involve significant risk to health of workers and their communities, if not done properly.

The rapid expansion of technology and the consumption-driven society in the modern world are also attributed to the creation of increasingly very large amounts of e-wastes in recent years.

The term “waste” is reserved for residue or material which is dumped by the buyer rather than recycled, including residue from reuse and recycling operations, because loads of surplus electronics are frequently commingled (good, recyclable, and non-recyclable), according to Wikipedia.

Several public policy advocates apply the term “e-waste” and “e-scrap” broadly to all surplus electronics. Cathode ray tubes (CRTs) are considered one of the hardest types to recycle.

Therefore, as electronic wastes keep growing and growing, today people are buying more and more electronic devices and the electronic devices are being retired faster.

For example, cell phones usually have a useful life of 18 to 24 months. In 2012, the average household in the United States (US) spent $1,312 on consumer electronic products a year, according to a study by the Consumer Electronic Associations (CEA). Over 20 million tonnes of e-wastes are produced every year, reports Mayer Alloys Corporation, a company based in Metro Detroit, US, which provides business-to-business electronic waste recycling.

Given that the information and technology revolution has exponentially increased the use of new electronic equipment, it has also produced growing volumes of obsolete products, and e-wastes constitute one of the fastest-growing waste streams.

Although e-wastes, according to Britannica, contain complex combinations of highly toxic substances that pose a danger to health and the environment, many of the products also contain recoverable precious materials, making it a different kind of waste compared with traditional municipal waste.

The publication noted that globally, e-wastes constitute over five percent of all municipal solid wastes, and are increasing with the rise of sales of electronic products in developing countries.

The majority of the world’s e-wastes are recycled in developing countries, where informal and hazardous setups for the extraction and sale of metals are common, said the report.

Recycling companies in developed countries face strict environmental regulatory regimes and an increasing cost of waste disposal and thus may find exportation to small traders in developing countries more profitable than recycling in their own countries.

It is also stated that there is also significant illegal transboundary movement of e-wastes in the form of donations and charity from rich industrialised countries to developing countries.

Similarly, e-waste profiteers can harvest substantial profits owing to lax environmental laws, corrupt officials, and poorly paid workers, and there is an urgent need to develop policies and strategies to dispose of and recycle e-waste safely in order to achieve a sustainable future.

Impacts on consumers’ health and the ecosystem

A report has stated that the complex composition and improper handling of e-waste adversely affect human health.

It was learnt that a growing body of epidemiological and clinical evidence has led to increased concern about the potential threat of e-wastes to consumers’ health, especially in developing countries, such as India, China and Nigeria.

The primitive methods used by unregulated backyard operators (e.g., the informal sector) to reclaim, reprocess, and recycle e-waste materials expose the workers to a number of toxic substances.

Processes such as dismantling components, wet chemical processing, and incineration are used and result in direct exposure and inhalation of harmful chemicals.

Safety equipment such as gloves, face masks, and ventilation fans are virtually unknown, and workers often have little idea of what they are handling, according to report.

For instance, in terms of health hazards, open burning of printed wiring boards increases the concentration of dioxins in the surrounding areas.

These toxins cause an increased risk of cancer if inhaled by workers and local residents. Toxic metals and poison can also enter the bloodstream during the manual extraction and collection of tiny quantities of precious metals, and workers are continuously exposed to poisonous chemicals and fumes of highly concentrated acids.

Recovering resalable copper by burning insulated wires causes neurological disorders, and acute exposure to cadmium, found in semiconductors and chip resistors, can damage the kidneys and liver and cause bone loss.

Long-term exposure to lead on printed circuit boards and computer and television screens can damage the central and peripheral nervous system and kidneys, and children are more susceptible to these harmful effects.

SON, NESREA’s efforts at regulating e-wastes in Nigeria

ConsumerConnect had reported that in a move to curb the consequences of the prevalence of electronic wastes (e-wastes) in the ecosystem, the Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON) and National Environmental Standards and Regulations Enforcement Agency (NESREA) has agreed to collaborate in regulating electronic wastes in the country.

Mr. Maji Aileku, Head of Media at SON, in a recent statement in Abuja, FCT, said the two regulatory agencies had expressed their desired collaboration to tackle the menace of e-wastes in Nigeria.

On reasons for the regulatory agencies’ collaborative efforts, Aileku said that the organisations reached the agreement when Dr. Aliu Jauro, NESREA’s Director-General (DG), visited Malam Farouk Salim, Director-General of SON.

The statement noted that Malam Salim identifies e-wastes as a threat to health and the environment when not handled properly.

The SON Head of Media stated: “The SON DG decried the general ignorance and the dangers it posed to the larger population while the recyclers prioritise their financial gains over public good.”

Aileku said the SON Director-General observed the society has become a dumping ground for toxic materials thus exposing the Nigerian consumers to diseases, such as cancer without knowing the source.

He, therefore, acceded to the idea of a joint committee to work out appropriate measures to integrate areas of common interests between the two organisations, the statement noted.

According to Salim, such a step would go a long way in curbing the consequences of the prevalence of e-wastes in Nigeria.

The SON Chief said that the proposed committee should consider strengthening existing standards, and work towards engendering far-reaching regulations of e-wastes and their effects on the environment.

The NESREA Director-General also stated that the existing collaboration between the two organisations, especially in the areas of standards development, adoption and review, had contributed immensely to the agency’s regulatory efforts at environmental standards.

Dr. Jauro, however, expressed concern about the negative effects of electronic wastes (e-wastes) in Nigeria, following the influx of obsolete and near end-of-life electronics into the country in recent years.

The statement further said that he made reference to the effective collaboration of both agencies in an inter-ministerial consultative committee set up by the Federal Government in 2009, to strategise on curbing the influx of e-waste.

The NESREA helmsman decried the spate of recycling of e-waste materials across the country, which were being carried out in an unhealthy environmental manner and negatively impacting the environment and human.

He sought SON’s support to enhance the effective regulation of e-wastes, to mitigate the negative effects in the society.

Tackling e-wastes as responsibility of all stakeholders

Given that electronics constitute an indispensable part of everyday life, yet their hazardous effects on human and animal health as well as the environment cannot be underestimated.

The interface between electrical and electronic equipment and the environment takes place during the manufacturing, reprocessing, and disposal of these products.

Also, emission of fumes, gases, and particulate matter into the air, the discharge of liquid waste into water and drainage systems, and the disposal of hazardous wastes contribute to environmental degradation.

Accordingly, experts advocate that aside from tighter regulation of e-waste recycling and disposal in economies across the world, particularly in developing countries, there is a need for implementable policies that extend the responsibility of all stakeholders, mostly the product manufacturers or producers, beyond the points of sale and up to the end of product life.

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