The insatiable crave for luxury and possessions of new equipment for personal, domestic and commercial use has increased in recent years. Fueled by the accelerated pace of digitalisation and a growing global middle-income class, electrical and electronic equipment has become a mainstay of modern lives, and a clear indication of rising prosperity.
Yet the prevalence of consumer electronics also gives rise to a darker side of modernity. The growing amount of electronic waste which contains harmful substances such as mercury, brominated flame retardant and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) raises an alarming public health concern. These toxic substances when released into the atmosphere cause respiratory infections and diseases, affect nervous systems, cause still birth and miscarriages among exposed expectant mothers, as well as affecting weight and length of new born babies, increased rate of attention deficit, sensory integration difficulty and reduced neonatal neurological assessment scores. It also leaks into the soil affecting crops and food.
The marine bodies are not left out of its destructive effect – polluting and acidifying the water bodies endanger the species. In a novel report on e-waste by the World Health Organisation, a child who eats one chicken egg in Agbobloshie, an e- waste dump site in Ghana will absorb 220 times of European Food Safety Authority daily limit of chlorinated dioxin which are a group of long-lived polyhalogenated organic compounds that are primarily anthropogenic and contribute toxic persistent with organic pollution in the environment and deadly to human health.
Most consumers look at the luxury and the immediate comfort these equipment offer, disregarding the dire environmental consequences after its end of life. E- waste accounts for 70 percent of the world’s toxic waste produced. In 2020, 55.5million metric tonnes of waste was generated globally as against 54million metric tonnes in 2019, of which only 17 percent was collected and recycled. Such a gloomy picture demands pragmatic policies and initiatives to curb the menace. Mining workers are at risk of exposure to over 1000 harmful substances.
Ghana imports almost 150,000 tonnes of electronic goods per year and runs the largest informal recycling industry in Africa. Part of this problem can be attributed to the influx of second-hand products which are either dysfunctional by the time of import or become obsolete after a short period of time.
The informal collection of electronic waste has provided a lot of jobs for the unemployed youth in the country. Dr. Yaw Dankwah Osseo- Asare, a lecturer at the Ashesi University and a co-Lead for Agbobloshie Makerspace Platform (AMP), has sought to reinvent the scrapyard into a site for makerspaces and centres of digital fabrication, with support and funding from GIZ and Rockefeller Centenniel Innovation Challenge. AMP seeks to build a modular, movable and expandable hub where Agbobloshie makers can work and collaborate with other professionals.
The space will also be a hub for creating tool sets and toolboxes where various artisans and scrap dealers can use in their craft, improving efficiency and reducing environmental concerns. This project also connects the informal recyclers with Engineering students in the tertiary institutions who will receive these wastes and make tools and other equipment out of it.
The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal, which was adopted in 1989 in response to a public outcry following the discovery in the 1980s in Africa and other parts of the developing world of toxic deposit and other hazardous materials, seek to protect human health and the environment against the adverse effects of the generation, management, transboundary movement and disposal of hazardous and other wastes. This plays a decisive role in achieving the Millennium Development Goals: poverty reduction, reducing child mortality, improving maternal health and ensuring environmental sustainability.
The convention affirms that in order to protect human health and the environment, hazardous waste should not be traded freely like ordinary commercial goods, and thus it establishes a written notification and approval process for all cross-border movements of hazardous waste. The regulatory exemption on equipment that is destined for reuse is entirely compatible with its prime environmental objective to prevent waste generation of hazardous waste.
This temporarily diverts the need for recycling or disposal. However, the distinction of whether something is waste or not, and therefore intended for reuse, is a long standing discussion under the Basel convention, and this leaves room for countries who are signatories to the convention to set import standards and guidelines to prevent waste being dumped into their country.
Ghana being a signatory to the Basel convention in 2016, passed the Hazardous and Electronics waste control and management Act (Act 917) and the Hazardous and electronic waste control management Regulations (LI 2250). This legal framework requires producers and private importers to register with the Environmental Protection Agency and pay an Advance Eco levy for electronic goods imported. These funds are used for monitoring, implementation and enforcement of the legal framework and support to restructure and formalise informal actors. This legal framework has failed in recent years.
Government of Ghana, in collaboration with the Ghana shippers Authority and the Ghana Standards Authority, implemented the G- CAP (Ghana Conformity Assessment Programme), which is indefinitely suspended. This policy was to stream guide the standard of products shipped into the country. It also had the Advanced Shipping Information which sought to provide first hand details of consignment before it got to its destination port. The Pre shipment assessment clause of this policy which assesses the standard of the product was also a best way to reduce the garbage import of goods before it got into the country. This great policy never lived up to its expectations and impact.
The Environmental Protection Agency, in 2018, adopted technical Guidelines on environmentally sound e-waste management for collectors, collection centres, transporters, treatment facilities and final disposal, yet this document has not been implemented to its full potential. There are no collection centres, nor proper data on informal recyclers and treatment facilities.
The ineffectiveness of the country’s legal frameworks and formalisation of the collectors and recycling industry has a dire effect on the country. The country’s quest to achieve the SDGs is far from realisation. Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organisation calls electronic waste a mounting tsunami staring at the world, and seeks necessary attention to be given as it has been given to plastic waste.
Goods that are shipped can be banned after thorough examination from the country of import before it finds its way into the country. Porous borders should be tightened. Ghana, being a signatory to the Basel convention, should be able to amend certain clauses that ban second hand goods. Effectiveness of such regulations will reduce the influx of condemned goods reaching the country.
Circular economy should be encouraged, where consumer electronic products will be kept in use for as long as possible, then professionally remanufactured for reuse, refurbished or repaired and the valuable components within them will be separated and recycled. Government or private entities can establish a refurbishment programme to help improve and widen the ICT knowledge in rural areas by distributing these refurbished products to schools and communities.
Incentive-based collection of electronic waste should be introduced. This will help consumers to keep any electronic waste for cash, preventing it from being improperly disposed of. This encourages the youth to venture into such trade – collecting disposed electronics. This can only be done if it is regulated and collection points are built and spread all across the nation. Government can leverage this to create more jobs and train youth with skills.
Extended producer Responsibility (EPR); product should achieve high utilisation rate. The key principle behind the reasoning that producers or manufacturers should be primarily responsible for this post-consumer phase is that most of the environmental impacts are predetermined in the design phase. Under EPR principle, responsibility can be assigned either individually – where producers are responsible for their own products, or collectively – where producers in the same product type or category take up the responsibility of end of life management together.
Waste segregation should be encouraged so that electronic waste will not be mixed up with other waste which ends up at the land fields. This will be achieved when our waste management systems are well structured in various homes, offices and commercial places. Various bins should be allocated for different waste. Identifying where each waste should be, is a step ahead in curbing improper handling of electronic waste.
Education and awareness are key to transforming our environment. Most consumers are unaware of the impact of electronic waste to the environment. Social media should give more attention to the phenomenon just as it has given to plastic waste. Manufacturers are somewhat unconcerned about the dangers their products pose to the environment, and therefore must also take the lead to educate consumers about the dangers of their products.
The writer is the Exec. Director – Forum for Climate Action
Email: [email protected]