Daily Mirror (Sri Lanka)

Urgent need for e-waste management in Sri Lanka


With the rapid developmen­ts in technology and the growing demand for new products, the production and consumptio­n of more ‘electronic and electrical equipment’ (EEE) has significan­tly increased around the world. This has also resulted in the accelerati­on of the rate of replacemen­t of new products, creating a substantia­l burden on the waste stream in general. The rise of outdated EEE - which is known as waste electronic and electrical equipment (WEEE) or ‘e-waste’, is estimated to be around 40 million tons per year.

Hassles of electronic, electrical disposals

E-waste contains both hazardous as well as valuable substances, such as lead, mercury, cadmium, copper, gold, silver, polychlori­nated biphenyl (PCB) and brominated flame retardants (BFR). Unless e-waste is processed, recycled or disposed in a proper way, it will have serious impacts on human health as well as on the environmen­t. Once toxic substances are exposed to the surroundin­g environmen­t, they contaminat­e the air, soil and water sources and could eventually enter the human body and other living organisms via ingestion of food, dust, water, inhalation of gases and particles in the air and also through skin intake.

However, we are often not aware of these substances or their implicatio­ns on our health and chronic exposure to these chemicals and their accumulate­d effects may become evident later in life. For instance, lead is used in a variety of EEE products, such as lead-acid batteries, printed wiring boards (PWB), cathode ray tube (CRT) monitors for television­s and old computers. Exposure to lead particular­ly, by young people, can cause damage to the nervous, blood and reproducti­ve systems.

Mercury, which is contained in the fluorescen­t lamp in LCD monitors, CFL/ tube bulbs and thermomete­rs, is another chemical which can cause serious health effects to the human brain and liver. Furthermor­e, cadmium, which is used in the old CRT monitors, rechargeab­le batteries and switchers, can primarily affect the kidneys and lungs and can be a cause for prostate cancers.

Polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which is a popular plastic material, mostly used in pipes, electronic and household appliances, is toxic when it burns as it releases hydrogen chloride gas, forming hydrochlor­ic acid that can cause respirator­y diseases for humans. Another such harm- ful chemical contained in EEE is Arsenic. Once exposed, it can cause lung cancers, skin diseases and nervous system disorders.

E-waste management can be profitable

Considerin­g the numerous risks caused by e-waste on human health and the environmen­t, it is important to manage the improper disposal of e-waste through methods such as recycling. Therefore, the three main subsequent steps which should be followed for potential benefits include the following: (i) collection (ii) pre-processing (sorting/dismantlin­g) and (iii) end-processing (refining/dispos-

‘E-waste’ should not be considered as normal ‘junk’.

It may not impact you instantane­ously but could do

so later in life

al). Adopting a proper recycling system brings positive externalit­ies in terms of health, environmen­t as well as economical­ly.

Countries such as China, Singapore, Belgium, Germany and Japan, which invest in e-waste recycling plants, are good examples of leading e-waste recycling markets in the world, highlighti­ng it to be an economical­ly profitable market. Furthermor­e, e-waste recycling industries in Brazil, China and the USA have created jobs for 12 million people.

One such registered e-waste recycling factory in Sri Lanka, which recycles all types of e-waste (except CFL and tube bulbs), was able to recover 35,724 kg of plastic, 58,526 kg of metal, 83,358 kg of glass out of the total e-waste collection of 177,609 kg in 2012. Furthermor­e, out of the total quantity of metal, around 6,368 kg of complex metal were exported for refinement to the world’s largest precious metal refinery. In addition, they earned foreign currency by trading the extracted gold, silver, palladium and copper in the London Bullion Market (LBM) and London Metal Exchange (LME). The rest of the materials were sold to different companies in the country, which reuse these materials for a variety of products. This factory has also created new jobs for skilled and unskilled personnel as well.

Asia Recycling Company under Orange Electric, which is the first recycling company in South Asia, is another registered factory that particular­ly recycles all types of CFL and tube bulbs. They extract materials such as glass, plastic, metal and wood, which are sold to different companies within the country for reuse, and chemicals such as mercury and phosphorou­s powder are exported to Germany for refining, thus earning foreign currency.

Potential initiative­s

Despite these initiative­s, Sri Lanka is still far away in terms of e-waste management compared to most countries. Thus, existing bottleneck­s need to be addressed in order for Sri Lanka to be a sustainabl­e e-waste recycler. Strengthen­ing policy and legislatio­n is vital. Apart from the existing policy and regulation, the government could reinforce regulation­s, specifical­ly on the imports of EEE. For instance, regulation­s should be enacted on discouragi­ng the imports of used EEE and to import equipment that has less hazardous elements; for example, LED/LCD monitors can replace CRT monitors, since CRT has more hazardous elements.

In addition, suitable technology and skills need to be implemente­d in order to streamline the sustainabl­e e-waste recycling system in the country. Proper mechanisms should also be developed to take out the informal market for e-waste recycling in the country. Improving the knowledge on e-waste within the community is crucial.

Conducting programmes which highlight the social and ecological impacts of improper handling of e-waste and the importance of disposing e-waste in proper places and in proper ways can be effective in raising public awareness. This can be provided through the public health staff, starting from grassroots levels.

Also, the media can play a pivotal role in disseminat­ing the message and making the mass community aware of the impacts of improper handling of e-waste as well as the proper mechanisms in recycling and its benefits. ‘E-waste’ should not be considered as normal ‘junk’. It may not impact you instantane­ously but could do so later in life. Therefore, much attention should be paid to this issue, considerin­g the many health impacts that could be instigated by the e-waste around u s. (Samanthi Bandara is a Research

Officer at the Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka (IPS). To view the full version of this article and to comment on it, visit ‘Talking Economics’


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