They were the mod cons of a new era – computers, laptops, CDs, mobile phones. Today, after years of use, they have become garbage or in modern day jargon, e-waste. Decade-old computers, monitors and CPUs, thousands of CDs and DVDs, broken-down refrigerators, televisions, mobile phones and batteries were in 200 metric tons of electronic waste [...]


Modern garbage that is slowly poisoning us

Call to action on e-waste after 200 tons of electronic junk is handed in

They were the mod cons of a new era – computers, laptops, CDs, mobile phones. Today, after years of use, they have become garbage or in modern day jargon, e-waste.

An e-waste collecting centre run by a private company in Wattala. Pic by Indika Handuwala

Decade-old computers, monitors and CPUs, thousands of CDs and DVDs, broken-down refrigerators, televisions, mobile phones and batteries were in 200 metric tons of electronic waste collected during National Electronic Waste Management Week last week.

Sri Lanka generates 65-70 metric tons of electronic waste annually, according to the Central Environmental Authority (CEA), whose week-long campaign resulted in the collection of the 200 metric tons – or a whopping 200,000kg – of e-waste from state and private sector institutions and individuals.

CEA Director (Waste Management) Ajith Weerasundara said he hoped individuals and small enterprises would follow larger private firms in the thoughtful management of electronic goods that have come to the end of their useful life.

He condemned local authorities for having shown little interest in the issue.

Obsolete computers and computer parts, televisions, mobile phones, calculators, batteries, stereos, copiers, electronic toys, fax machines, and electronic home appliances all form e-waste.

A shocking 50 million metric tons of such waste is generated globally every year and only 12.5 per cent is managed properly through recycling and storage. The rest, 87.5 per cent, is dumped or burned without care.

CEA Director (Waste Management) Ajith Weerasundara. Pic by Athula Devapriya

“Sri Lanka exports e-waste to Hong-Kong, Germany, Belgium, South Korea, Singapore and the United Kingdom through 19 licensed collectors,” Mr. Weerasundara said.

These overseas plants are designed so that their emission discharges do not pollute the environment. Sri Lanka lacked such recycling capacity.

The CEA Director said that while many Sri Lankan organisations decided to cut down on the ecological and economic costs of paper by changing to CD use they should be aware that CD disposal should be carried out thoughtfully or this would damage the environment more than the use of paper.

“Local authorities should play a vital role. Both local authorities and the public should also take measures to segregate garbage from e-waste. If colour codes are not practical here, at least degradable and non-degradable items should be separated. E-waste should not be dumped as it may contaminate the groundwater and affects soil quality,” he added.

He said heavy metals such as mercury, lead and cadmium, antimony, beryllium and arsenic and brominated flame retardants (BFRs) are present in electronic devices.

If released into the environment these substances can harm humans as well as the environment.

Mercury is found in old batteries and switches and in the fluorescent tubes of flat screen monitors and televisions. A CFL bulb contains 3-5mg of mercury.

According to the CEA, short-term exposure to all forms of mercury can cause lung damage, nausea, diarrhoea, vomiting, increased blood pressure and heart rate, eye irritation and skin rashes. Long-term exposure can cause permanent damage to the brain, kidneys, and developing foetuses.

Arsenic, which is found in computer chips and light-emitting diodes, is a well-known skin and lung cancer-causing substance.
Brominated flame retardants (BFRs), which are added to plastic to prevent fires, are considered to be a hormone disrupter, and children exposed to these substances show increased risk to thyroid disease and neural diseases.

Cadmium, a coating of contacts and switches in the CPU, monitors used to prevent corrosion, and used extensively as a protective coating for steel. It is also commonly found in rechargeable nickel cadmium batteries.

Breathing high levels of cadmium can cause lung damage and death. Long-term exposure to low levels of cadmium can cause elevated blood pressure and kidney damage, the CEA warned.

Chromium, which is used as a hardener in plastics and a dye in pigments, and is often present in the coating of some metal parts, is a carcinogen if inhaled, Mr. Weerasundara said.

Lead is present in lead batteries from vehicles to emergency power supplies and in gasoline, ammunition, solders, seals or bearings, television glass and cathode ray tubes.

Initial symptoms of exposure to lead are anorexia, muscle pain, malaise and headache. Long-term exposure to lead decreases the overall performance of the nervous system. High-level exposure can result in brain damage and death.

Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic is used in the insulation of some cables used in IT equipment. It also produces highly toxic dioxins when burnt. Research has also shown that PVC is a hormone disrupter.

Mr. Weerasundara urged people to donate superseded but usable electronic items to schools and charities to be reused, to refill and recharge ink cartridges and alkaline batteries.

He also urged electronic manufacturers to institute take-back recycling programmes by asking customers to hand in old mobile phones, laptops, televisions, digital cameras and home and auto electronics for recycling when buying new replacements.

The CEA is bringing new amendments to the 2008 regulations that define e-waste as hazardous. “There is a need for a national action plan on e-waste management with all sectors contributing,” Mr. Weerasundara said. The CEA is only the regulatory body; local governments should be actively involved as they can reach local residents.

“At present we are limited to school awareness programmes but the message should reach adults too,” the CEA official added.

Call for info on e-waste collectionCall the CEA’s hotline 071 969 2005 for information on e-waste collection centres. E-waste is collected under categories such as electronic waste in bulk quantities, toner and cartridges recycling, used office equipment, used household electronic appliances, used mobile phones and accessories and used and obsolete electronic equipment.


Parliament leads by example

An e-waste scheme running in Parliament House sees the monthly collection of such junk from 10 to 13 big bins placed in different locations in the building.

While the scheme is directed at waste generated officially, employees of parliament can also bring in e-waste from their homes for disposal in the bins.

A private company collects the waste each month for recycling and disposal.

CDs, printer cartridges, CFL and led bulbs and phone batteries form the bulk of the e-waste, said the Deputy Secretary General of Parliament, Neil Iddawela.

Annual reports and other reports are now given on CDs (since last year) to cut down on the bulky paper generated previously.

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