Wednesday, July 21, 2010


Trash Truth: What a waste
A single cellphone ending up as waste can contaminate 600,000 litres of water. Now imagine the havoc wrought on human health and the environment by tonnes of E-waste dumped into landfills across the UAE each day
By Sharmila Dhal, Senior ReporterPublished: 00:00 July 22, 2010Reader comments (0)
170,000 cellphones collected by Enviroserve from its collection boxes across the UAE since 2008Image Credit: SuppliedImage 1 of 3123
Dubai: Tonnes of electronic waste with highly toxic chemicals including carcinogens are being dumped into UAE landfills, causing irreversible damage to ground water, soil fertility and human health, officials and environmentalists have warned.
The country may boast of a $2.8 billion (Dh10.28 billion) spending on consumer electronics in 2010 with a record mobile phone penetration of 140 per cent, but regular acquisitions and upgradations of these devices by techno-savvy and throw-at-will consumers is causing concern as the obsolete or surplus items they replace are being recklessly discarded.
"Presently, e-waste is disposed (of) at landfills," Engr Hassan Mohammad Makki, Director of Waste Management Department at Dubai Municipality, told XPRESS, warning that, "This can lead to contamination of groundwater due to heavy metal concentration."
Enviroserve, a federally accredited operator to deal with e-waste, said a single cellphone ending up in a landfill could contaminate up to 600,000 litres of water.
Indifferent public
Sources said as callous residents throw everything from organic waste and paper, plastics and glass to obsolete electrical and electronic items into the same bins in their homes, large swathes of the desert in the suburbs of Dubai such as Jebel Ali, Al Ghusais and Al Lusaili could slowly be turning toxic as much of the non-segregated waste gets emptied into landfills in these areas.
They said lead, mercury, cadmium and other poisonous chemicals in the e-waste add toxins to the leachate of the soil, affecting vegetation and the animals feeding on it. The potential damage to human health is severe as many of these chemicals are carcinogenic and can also affect the functioning of the brain, kidneys and other vital organs (see box).
"The issue is extremely grave as most people here want the latest, most advanced electronic products at all times. As they buy new ones, most of them do not know what to do with their old products and end up disposing of them irresponsibly. When these electronic products end up in a landfill, they cause grave environmental damage," said Habiba Al Marashi, Chairperson, Emirates Environmental Group and Board Member, UN Global Compact.
Although the exact amount of e-waste generated in the country is yet to be ascertained, Habiba said, "With the advent of new mobiles, computers, laptops and televisions, the pile of e-waste in the UAE is bigger than ever before." The reasons behind this hazardous build-up are being largely blamed on an irresponsible public, inadequate infrastructure and lack of legislation.
Although there are select avenues to drop off recyclable and reusable e-waste (see box), residents either remain unaware of this or lack the will to make a trip to these designated places.
A Bur Dubai resident said facilities to discard different kinds of e-waste are neither adequate nor convenient. "Why can't the municipality have another bin for e-waste along with the three bins it has installed near bus shelters? Currently they are meant only for the disposal of paper, bottles and cans and general trash," he said.
Efforts so far by companies and NGOs to collect old mobiles or other electronic items are more in the nature of periodic campaigns rather than a sustained exercise.
As a result, large amounts of e-waste go into the bins of our homes and this mass just gets bigger and more hazardous as it is shoved into building chutes, roadside wheel bins and into the compactor trucks of the municipality and waste management companies that, for the most part, empty them into the landfills.
No distinction
Ajay Kumar, Operations Manager at Dulsco, a leading waste management company in Dubai, said compactor trucks do not distinguish between the different types of waste which are merely crushed and then dumped into the landfills.
Sajida Shaikh, General Manager, Marketing & Customer Service, Dulsco, said, "Sorting should happen at the source of waste generation, and not be a post-collection process."
Such a segregation, said Kumar, would help recover resources from the waste and also ensure that recyclables are not contaminated by organic waste.
"Having said that, we do send around eight-ten of our trucks to Tadweer for post-collection sorting," he said.
But a large percentage of the trucks, be it from firms like Dulsco — it has a total fleet of 100 trucks — or elsewhere, make their way to the landfills at Jebel Ali, Al Ghusais or Al Lusaili in Dubai.
While the pioneering Tadweer which segregates recyclable materials and treats biological waste to make compost does its bit, sources said recycling remains an infant industry in the UAE while refineries for processing e-waste and extracting raw material like gold, silver and copper remain non-existent.
They said currently, recycling is largely confined to items such as paper, glass, plastics and cans with names like Union Paper Mills (paper) and Horizon Technology (PET processing) being at the forefront.
In terms of e-waste, companies like Enviroserve and more recent entrants like the Green Foundation, manually disassemble mobile phones or other types of e-waste they collect from corporations, individuals, NGOs etc at local facilities for recycling, but send the more complicated recyclable elements such as cartridges, batteries, motherboards and data cables to certified facilities in Europe where they are broken down into spare parts and melted down into metals, precious metals or plastics.
Zornitza Hadjitodorova, Division Manager, E-waste, Enviroserve, said the company has collected over 170,000 mobile phones since 2008 from its Envirophone collection boxes across the UAE which have been recycled. Similarly, Makki said Dubai Municipality has collected 60,495 computers since 2007 which have been refurbished at the PC Refurbishment Centre and donated to charities. A separate section to collect household electronic and electrical equipment waste has also been set up by the civic authority.
Green foundation
Besides targeting corporations and charities, the Green Foundation collects e-waste in a consumer initiative launched at Emax electronics stores in the region, Jonathan Tozer, Marketing Director at the foundation, said.
The lack of refineries has spawned a huge unorganised industry where scrap dealers buy old electrical and electronic products to sell them again for profit. "Reuse is a grey area," said Zornitza, "because you do not know if a product is reused as a whole, if data is removed or if it is crushed and ends up in the landfill."
Although the UAE is a signatory to the Basel Convention of 1990 that requires it to minimise the generation of e-waste, legislation on e-waste management is yet to come about.
"Necessary legislations are not in place for the disposal of e-waste," admitted Makki, but explained that the municipality's Waste Management Department, in association with an international consultant, is working out effective waste minimisation strategies. "The consultants have submitted the draft minimisation strategy and it is being reviewed by a committee in the municipality," he revealed.
In the absence of a clear legislation, it is not binding on manufacturers to take back end-of-use electronic equipment, although many of them include a small recycling fee in the original selling price.
Experts said unlike the West where residents are obliged to pay a waste tax, people in the UAE get away with dumping. There is no disposal fee either, with trucks that empty the non-segregated waste into the landfills having to pay as little as Dh10 per truck as a gate charge. "People come here as expatriates and forget that it is their responsibility to keep the environment safe," said Zornitza, adding that sustainable solutions to lower the carbon footprint should be developed.
Ajay Kumar said one way out could be to come up with incentive schemes for villa and apartment owners to influence people to recycle. Targets need to be set with those achieving them being rewarded and others being penalised. This could well be linked with the upcoming housing fee, he suggested.
Health Hazards
E-waste could contain several hazardous chemicals, including lead, cadmium, mercury, chromium, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and polyvinyl chlorides which affect human health:
Lead present in TV monitors, cathode ray tubes etc damages the brain and nervous system. Vomiting, diarrhoea, convulsions etc are common in small-dose exposures. Children and pregnant women are especially vulnerable
Cadmium in circuit boards, batteries etc is a carcinogenic and affects the functions of kidney, liver and hormones
Mercury in flat panel display screens, thermometers, electric meters etc, is a neurotoxin and even in small doses, can cause severe brain and kidney damage
Chromium causes lung cancer, besides affecting the nose, throat and lungs
Printed circuit boards release brominated flame retardants, mercury and isocyanates which can be deadly

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