Friday, January 9, 2009


Warning: e-waste can turn nasty

Matt Kwong

* Last Updated: January 09. 2009 2:56PM UAE / January 9. 2009 10:56AM GMT

A sign warns of hazardous waste at the Maqatra landfill between Abu Dhabi and Hmeem. Stephen Lock / The National

ABU DHABI // Heaps of discarded mobile phones, computer motherboards and television sets accumulate in desert dumps, and the Emirates Environmental Group says much of the junk does not belong there.

Habiba al Marashi, chairwoman of the group, said electronic waste commonly contains toxic materials such as lead, mercury, cadmium and lithium. Over time, some of those dangerous substances can leach into soil and contaminate groundwater.

“A proper and systematic campaign should be launched to target specifically these types of materials,” Mrs al Marashi wrote in an e-mail. “There should be a thorough and comprehensive education and awareness programme for both the producers and consumers”.

She commended Dubai Municipality for a project that refurbishes and upgrades unwanted computers for donation to charity.

Abu Dhabi Municipality does not include e-waste disposal in its overall waste management strategy, but an adviser to the public sanitation department said it was worthy of attention. “E-waste is a particular category of waste that requires more attention and it’s an issue that we’re continuing to look into,” said Olabode Esan, an adviser on public sanitation. “It’s not something that I can give details of in terms of implementing yet.”

Until 2007, there was no national mechanism in place for residents or manufacturers to recycle electronics. The EnviroFone programme was established that year in partnership with the federal Ministry of Environment and Water and the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority.

“The Government wanted to tackle the issue of e-waste because nobody’s done it before,” said Stuart Fleming, the programme’s managing director. “The UAE government then decided to do it as one national campaign.”

EnviroFone says it saved 43 tons of e-waste from scrapyards in 2008.

By the end of this year, the programme’s goal is to collect 100 tons of equipment – such as broken computer monitors, television sets, unwanted mobile phones and keyboards – before it becomes hazardous waste.

According to EnviroFone, a single mobile phone can contaminate 600,000 litres of water.

“That’s the damage implied from such a small item as a mobile phone,” Mr Fleming said. “But just imagine the tons of printers, keyboards and monitors which are more or less consumable items these days. We’ve got the figure of over a hundred tons of electronic waste discarded in the UAE annually, and that’s the battle that we’re fighting.”

Market research by EnviroFone indicated that as many as 3.5 million mobile phones are sitting unused in drawers around the country. “They’re potential hazardous waste,” Mr Fleming said. “We have found out that on average, people have got two or three with them or in a cabinet somewhere.”

People can safely discard their unused mobile phones in 500 drop boxes placed in petrol stations, Spinneys and Carrefour markets, post offices, Etisalat service centres as well as all branches of the National Bank of Abu Dhabi. A discarded phone is “recycled into maybe a new arm for your desk chair, or a bumper for your car”, Mr Fleming said. The waste is classified as “green”, which can be locally reprocessed, or “amber,” which must be exported to facilities in Europe or Asia for treatment.

EnviroFone will introduce incentives this month, such as the chance to win Dh1,000 monthly credits for Etisalat calls, air miles and car rentals. Mr Fleming said 40 winners would be selected each month.

The campaign also has expanded beyond mobile phones to include all forms of e-waste.

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