Thursday, 6 November 2014

E waste: An ethical concern for information age?

Piles of e-waste at DESCO
Many academics, especially in developing economies, are pondering on the question of whether electronic waste and its proper management should be placed as an ethical concern.

Most developing countries lag in the management of electronic waste. Despite major international treaties such as the Basel Convention (read more in Key Term of Reference) electronic waste is still exported to many such countries as India, China, Nigeria, Ghana and the DRC. In fact the world's largest electronic waste dump site is situated in Accra, Ghana.

Prof. Marlene Holmner of the University of Pretoria says that as there is no awareness among consumers of electronic goods, electronic waste is therefore is not considered a ‘priority waste’ in South Africa and hence its recycling and management is hardly given any importance.

John van Coller, from DESCO, one of the largest electronic recyclers in Gauteng, echoes the same sentiment.

"Currently the percentage of e-waste that is being generated in South Africa is wholly unknown."
DESCO receives almost 1000 tons of e-waste per month chief among which are computer monitors, mother boards, Internal Processing Units (IPUs) and even ATM machines.

Says van Coller: "The amount of e-waste we receive and recycle is like a drop in the ocean."

Back in 2008, when legislation for waste management was brought into force in the country, there had been an idea of making an inventory of e-waste that is generated within the borders of South Africa. According to van Coller: "We were really excited by the idea of an e-waste inventory. Unfortunately the Dept of Environmental Affairs never gave the go-ahead and it was never done."

Queries from the Department have remained unanswered.

According to Prof. Eric Achankeng from the University of Adelaide, South Africa suffers from a situation where there is a major vacuum related to e-waste management. Writing in an academic paper, Globalization, Urbanization and Municipal Solid Waste Management in Africa, he writes, "… there is no extant mechanism in the country with regard to proper management and disposal of electronic waste."

Agbogbolshie dump site: the largest e-waste dump site in the world.
E-waste management is rapidly becoming an ethical concern among many information technology practitioners. According to Prof. Achankeng: "E-waste management and recycling should not only be treated as an environmental concern but also as an ethical concern. When consumers buy electronic goods, it must be their moral, social and ethical obligation to inquire into what happens to the goods when it reaches the end of its life cycle."

Holmner and van Coller feel that in the particular situation of South Africa, the awareness about e-waste is so insignificant that far from seeing it as an ethical problem, both consumers and corporate have to first view it as a problem.

The majority of e-waste management is currently in the hands of informal recyclers. According to Prof. Holmner, informal recyclers often do not have the education nor the skill to properly dispose off electronic waste especially waste containing radio-active and other harmful metals. These often end up in the various landfills around the country thus posing a major health hazard to people living in the surrounding areas.

Piles of scrap in Hatherly landfill, Pretoria
In an academic paper written in 2010, Jinglei Yu and Yang Yan from Nankai University writes that since 2000, Asia Pacific and Middle/East Africa saw the fastest growth of PC sales while the developed regions of North America and Western Europe lagged behind. According to the paper, by 2030, the number of obsolete PCs in developing regions will double that of developed regions with 400-700 million units in developing countries compared to 200-300 million in developed regions.

Numbers like the above, according to Prof. Holmner are indeed a cause for concern.

“There is a dire need of legislation in the country with regards to e-waste, but even more importantly there is a dire need to educate people to the effects of electronic waste. Awareness about e-waste among consumers and companies should be our first priority.”

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