Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Complete and Utter Garbage

My microwave oven of nearly ten years stopped heating last week. Because of its age, my knee jerk reaction is to replace it. However, my wife has convinced me to try and get it fixed. What if it can’t be fixed? What then? The mindless thing to do is simply put it out with the rest of the garbage and let waste disposal take care of it. This almost certainly means that it will end up on a landfill somewhere. And that is a very undesirable situation indeed.

My last post talked about donating or giving away used computer equipment when we grow tired of them and want to buy the latest and the greatest. I should perhaps have presented the thought that you could hold onto and use the computer for a few years longer yourself. With the right software and a few hardware changes and some other ideas, those old computers could still be pretty useful to you. The flip side of this discussion though is that sometimes the equipment is simply dead. The Intel Pentium motherboard is fried. The cathode ray tube on the monitor blew up. Your precocious 4 year-old poured juice into your 586 laptop or tossed it from the balcony. There’s little or no coming back from this and you have to dispose of it. The problem is that there really is no safe means of disposing of dead electronics in Nigeria. We may not think about it, but every cell phone, walkman, CD player, computer or TV we have thrown out has environmentally hazardous chemicals that can and is doing significant damage to our environment because we do not have any practiced standards around waste disposal and recycling. We may think it isn’t our problem and it actually may not be. Not yet. However it will be a huge problem for our children and their children.

Wikipedia describes the chemicals and dangers of this “electronic waste”:

“Toxic substances in electronic waste may include lead, mercury, and cadmium. Carcinogenic substances in electronic waste may include polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Capacitors, transformers, and wires insulated with or components coated with polyvinyl chloride(PVC), manufactured before 1977, often contain dangerous amounts of PCBs.[11]

Up to 38 separate chemical elements are incorporated into electronic waste items. Many of the plastics used in electronic equipment contain flame retardants. These are generally halogens added to the plastic resin, making the plastics difficult to recycle. Due to the flame retardants being additives, they easily leach off the material in hot weather, which is a problem because when disposed of, electronic waste is generally left outside. The flame retardants leach into the soil and recorded levels were 93 times higher than soil with no contact with electronic waste [12].”

On a recent trip to the UK, I was impressed with the sorting and recycling standards that have become entrenched in the daily practice of the citizenry. Depending on where people lived, there are different dustbins and garbage collection units for different types of materials where glass, plastic, paper and metals are sorted by the resident; or separate trashcans for bio-degradable and non-biodegradable waste. They have proper recycling plants that reuse these materials for new products and make sure that the hazards do not poison people and the environment.

In Nigeria our streets are clogged with hazardous wastes. Carcinogens leach into the water table. potentially explosive chemicals pile up in our backyards. Even worse, we are serving as a dump for discarded items from foreign nations adding even more toxicity to our environment beyond what is self-generated. Apparently 50% of the world’s global electronic waste is dumped in 3 countries – India, China and Nigeria.

While the Lagos state government is facing the waste disposal issue along with other environmental issues, the really isn’t very much going on to recover wealth by recycling items which is the other side of the electronic waste story. We consume a huge amount of non-renewable materials in the manufacture of electronics. The succeeding generations of electronics will have to be made from materials recovered from this generation of electronics when they become waste. If we have no mechanism for recovering or recycling those materials then we not only have to use up more scarce materials to manufacture new items, but we are burying billions of dollars in reusable materials (here I am talking as if we have a manufacturing sector).

Right here and now in Lagos, Nigeria, I really don’t have very many safe and responsible options for my old microwave oven. That, ladies and gentlemen, is a pretty scary situation to be in.


(Photo Courtesy RedOrbit.com)

1 comment:

Gbenga said...


thanks so much for this. I would have logged into your blog, but I thought it was faster this way.

This issue of disposing e-waste has been on our priority list over the past few weeks. You touch on practically every aspect we know about, but for the fact that our dear Lagos state government is looking for a scape-goat to punish. I think they have just enacted a new law against disposal of such (don't know the details), and this is whether its direct or indirect. What I mean is, even if you donate out huge numbers of old PCs and they cause waste, you will still be 'charged' if they can be traced back to you. Obviously even they have no clue how to dispose of them, so where does that leave us? So, be warned.

For us in Guinness, we have simply bought containers and locked them up in there until we know for a fact what to do that wouldn't violate any law. We are also considering even sending them back to the manufacturer, but we don't know yet.

Does anyone have any ideas on how to deal with this?

One thing which I think is food for thought - considering how we've imported almost everything there is to import in this world, why is it that we seem to be extremely slow with recycling technology. I know things like paper & plastic, cardboard packaging and even 'bio-degradable' waste can be recycled to an almost new status. Why don't we do it? It looks like good business to me.


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