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Digital revolution could become a cyber age nightmare

The New Straits Times, April 14, 2002

By Dzulkifli Abdul Razak

WHILE the debate over the digital divide is still raging, especially between developed and developing economies, another digital debate is slowly emerging. This time, it is about technological waste, dubbed techno-trash or e-waste, generated by the digital world.

More specifically, e-waste refers to electronic products that are discarded — for example, computers and their accessories, together with many other obsolete electronic devices as the result of ever-changing inventions. Included are printers, scanners, monitors, central processing units, VCRs, television and even cell phones.

According to some waste management authorities, compared with the disposal of traditional wastes such as cans, bottles and newspapers, e-waste is tough to handle.

Although e-waste is still only a small percentage of traditional garbage volume, "proliferation of consumer electronics has gotten way ahead of cities' ability to deal with it", says a US National Recycling Coalition. In Europe alone, about six million tonnes of e-waste end up in dumps annually. In places where there is no proper system of e-waste disposal, some even use landfills. This is a difficult environmental problem for many countries. To date, only Japan and a few western countries recycle e-waste.

Like the digital divide, e-waste is increasingly becoming more prominent an issue in developing countries as it is being exported to many of these nations, like China, India and Pakistan. One report estimates that "as much as 50-80 per cent of the US' electronic waste that is collected in the name of recycling actually gets shipped out of the country".

Not surprising then that Jim Puckett, author of a report entitled Exporting Harm: The Hi-Tech Trashing of Asia, claimed: "I've seen a lot of dirty operations in Third World countries but what was shocking was seeing all this post-consumer waste." E-waste poses a number of environmental problems, perhaps even more than traditional waste. It is laden with hazardous metals such as lead, mercury and barium. Brominated flame retardants are also widely used. And because they are stripped and disposed of without safety considerations, the toxic materials leach into the water and soil.

The dumping of e-waste in some Chinese villages has given rise to a cyber age nightmare. The villagers are used as cheap labour to dismantle the machine, taking way the valuable parts containing copper, silver and even gold while casting off the rest.

According to one example, in a place called Guiyu in southern China such hazardous metals are already being detected in water and soil samples tested. "Vast amounts of e-waste material, both hazardous and simply trash, are burned or dumped in the rice fields, irrigation canals and along waterways," the report noted. Allegedly the air too is polluted by carcinogenic smoke as some of the waste was burned.

Acknowledging these dangers, a number of countries are already banning computers parts such as the monitors (that is the cathode ray tubes where lead is used to shield users from exposure to harmful radiation) from being dumped in landfills or burned in incinerators. Indeed many manufacturers, retailers and dealers are encouraging recycling but there are still those who choose to dump, since e-waste recycling is still to be adopted as a matter of policy worldwide.

However some countries in Europe and Asia have enacted extended producer responsibility laws requiring manufacturers or importers to collect their products at the end of their useful life.

This is to ensure that sorting and recycling are systematically undertaken, sometimes without extra charges. In other instances, the consumers are required to pay, whether at point of purchase or in the form of taxation, or as trade-ins so that they could be appropriately disposed.

While it is yet unclear as to who is ultimately accountable for the disposal of e-waste, local governments should take the lead in handling such matters. In other words, like in any IT agenda, policy and practice statements regarding e-waste must not be overlooked.

The attempt to create an IT-savvy nation should not be at the expense of polluting and poisoning the environment and/or the users.

While we welcome IT, we cannot be blind to its potential dangers. So before it is too late, it is time we say, e-nough to e-waste, and apply the same 3R formula of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle!

Recommended website: www.svtc.org.cleancc/index.html  

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