Earlier yesterday, I was watching a documentary on Ghana’s electronic waste (e-waste) problem, which explored Abgogbloshie, an e-waste dump near the capital Accra.Situated on the banks of a river the dump takes tons of discarded computers, electronics, electrical parts and arrive there each year from Europe.
In a highly toxic environment, the burning of the plastic around the electronics exposes them to cancer causing dioxins that are released in the toxic smoke plumes. Fine particulate – not reported in the documentary – will most likely be falling down wind of the plume. And at ground level the cadmium, mercury, lead and other highly toxic substances from the crude dismantling of old and unwanted appliances will be accumulating in the ground where it has already reached levels 100x more than United Nations safety recommendations.
Thousands of kilometres away in New Zealand, we generate 90,000 tons of e-waste each year. Only about 1% of which – or about 900 tons – is actually recycled. The rest – computers, smart phones, printers, televisions, washing machines, microwaves among other items – is dumped at refuse stations, on the street and so forth.
I have opined about this before, but I am frustrated with the glacial action in Parliament to enact measures to deal with e-waste here. They could easily be including recycling programmes, product stewardship policies that result in a pathway from manufacture to end use, establishing places where the rare earth minerals can be removed from the devices and reused. The figures from New Zealand alone would support such moves – 600 tons of copper; 600 kilogrammes of gold; amounts of palladium, rhodium, silver and other minerals with economic value.
There are 118 elements in the current version of the Periodic Table of the Elements. 60 of them are used in some form or another of electrical components or electronic devices. Some like Niobium and Argon are not known to be toxic, but others like Cadmium and Tellerium are not only carcinogenic, but tetarogenic (causes defects in babies) as well. Given that the hazards of e-waste dumped in western nations as well, are often not well understood, it is difficult to imagine anyone in a poor country like Ghana wearing personal protection. This would include equipment such as gloves, boots, or taking measures such as washing their hands.
This is not sexy in the sense of getting public interest, but it is necessary, and when one thinks about how we source minerals a case for linking to climate change can actually be made. As with a lot of elements, many of the rare earth minerals come from mines in Africa, South America and Asia where environmental laws are lax and there is no requirement to remediate the land after mining. To create these mines vast tracts of potentially healthy forest are going to have to be wrecked and the flora and fauna in them displaced.
As with other forms of waste New Zealand needs to own its e-waste and deal with it. Expecting other countries to clean up our mess is simply not an option.