IT is a cloudy morning near the popular fresh produce market in Mbare, the densely populated suburb of Harare.Pillars of black smoke swirl above the busy market. On the way to the source of the smoke, one passes by hunched men taking turns to pick apart old car-engine blocks for secondary use.
The track is lined with piles of old electrical appliances. The land around is littered with fine black ash speckled with glints of various colours. These are the sharp broken bits of different electrical gadgets. Smoke billows from many small blazes. Dozens of blurry figures drift in and out of the pungent miasma like ghosts, with some of the men stoking the flames with sticks. More people arrive with armfuls of discarded accessories.
Seventeen-year-old Tanaka Chikamhi’s lean frame emerges from the choking smoke. “I have been tending such fires for three years,” he tells the Zimbabwe Independent, as he pokes fixedly at the burning heap, his upper torso fading as he bends into the wafting soot from which he re-emerges with a tangle of copper wire off the old tyre he is using for fuel.
The discovery brings a wide smile to his face; with the insulation coating burned off the cable, a process that releases a toxic mix of gases, he knows the wire will fetch a few dollars from a scrap-metal buyer.
Nearby, casings of broken electrical gadgets accumulate on the banks of the Mukuvisi River, with some already floating in a pond.The relentless rain will wash them into Lake Chivero, Harare’s source of potable water. This is one of the many places where high-tech toxic trash causing horrendous pollution in Zimbabwe is deposited.
According to the United Nations, electronic waste, or e-waste, is a term for electronic products that have become unwanted, non-working or obsolete, and have essentially reached the end of their useful life.
Experts contend that a dedicated policy and legislative mechanism should be in place and offer clear guidelines and steps for collection, dismantling, pre-processing and end-processing for final metal recovery.
This is important, as developing economies will continue to generate more e-waste in the coming years. Because technology advances at such a fast pace, many electronic devices become trash after a few short years of use.
At Mbare’s popular Siyaso informal hub, later in the day, Tanaka is joined by his friends. They had agreed to let the Zimbabwe Independent accompany them to 48-year-old scrap metal buyer Kennias Magodo’s makeshift workshop. Tanaka and his friends have brought all sorts of wares: TV parts, computer accessories and several wires.
They often break open the gadgets, which now litter the ground with shards containing lead, a neurotoxin, and cadmium, a carcinogen that, according to medical doctor Anesu Kusangaya, damage lungs and kidneys. They strip resalable parts such as drives and memory chips. Then they rip out the wiring and burn the plastic. To them, the key to making money is speed, not safety.
“The smoke gets into your nose and you feel something in your head. Then you get sick in your head and your chest, but we do not mind,” he says.The 20th century was marked by the impact of information communication technologies (ICTs) on social and economic development, and this digital revolution has led to explosive production and extensive use of electronic equipment, making today’s information society possible.
However, this has also meant that ICTs have become commodities, and have over time been designed to reach their end-of-life sooner, as users move with the lightning pace of innovation.
To highlight the severity of the problem, around 50 million tonnes of e-waste are being thrown away each year, according to a new UN report — which exceeds the combined weight of all the commercial airliners ever made. In turn, this is creating a massive amount of e-waste globally, presenting challenges of dealing with toxic materials in ICTs that harm lives and the environment.
What worsens the situation for Zimbabwe is that the country currently has no e-waste management policy and the task is left to individuals and private corporates.
“The problem is that e-waste is not that topic which dominates discussions on technology, most probably because it does not have the pull of innovation and progress typical of advances in ICT. The word waste itself jolts people to just relegate this type of talk to any other time, but now and to some other people, not us,” environmental management expert Peter Makwanya said.
Research has shown that e-waste is one of the fastest growing solid waste streams today and it is growing at three times the rate of municipal waste globally.
“E-waste is a growing global challenge that poses a serious threat to the environment and human health worldwide,” Stephan Sicars, director of the department of environment at the UN Industrial Development Organisation said at the launch of the report during the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last month.
Environmentalists argue that e-waste control would help significantly cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions into the atmosphere, thereby enabling countries and regions to combat climate change, acknowledged to be the biggest environmental catastrophe the world is facing.
ICT minister Jenfan Muswere said Zimbabwe was still in the process of drafting an e-waste management policy.
“This policy is meant to outline the roles of various stakeholders in e-waste management, how the public and private sector will work together, and the opportunities that can be explored by anyone who wants to provide a solution for the growing e-waste challenge,” he said.
One example which could help the policy drafters is that of the United States which last year reported that it had recycled up to 10 million tonnes of electronic equipment, 18% of which were old television sets and 10% being mobile phones.
The European Union reported that it had recycled 9,3 tonnes of e-waste during the same period. Greenpeace, an international environmental awareness organisation, estimates that four million personal computers are discarded each year in China.
Africa, being mainly a consumer and a dumpsite for electronics from elsewhere, bears the brunt of poor e-waste management methods, studies have revealed.
An investigative report by the British media houses from dumping sites in Ghana and Nigeria tracked electronic devices that belonged to the UK’s leading public institutions including councils, the police department and health services.
The continued lacklustre approach to the e-waste problems goes against the UN’s sustainable development goal number 13 which mandates member states to work towards ensuring a improved environment.
The issue of e-waste management is, thus, set to take centre stage at the sixth session of the Africa Regional Forum on Sustainable Development scheduled for next week in Victoria Falls.