The level of pollution and environmental degradation is at an alarming stage. Though we are all aware of the life-threatening situation, very few seem to be doing something to save the situation. We often forget that the earth we live in is our common home. We often forget that as the environment gets deteriorated, our own health and life gets deteriorated. As the generations go by, our future generations find themselves in much worse situations than us.
One of the growing causes of environmental degradation is the increasing quantity of Electronic Waste (E-waste). E-waste consists of electronic products that are unwanted, not working, and nearing or at the end of their “useful life.” Common E-waste consists of cellphones, computers, televisions, VCRs, stereos, copiers, fax machines and other electronic gadgets of everyday use. There are also a range of rejected household electrical machines and appliances that form E-waste. Some of the common items are fridges, microwave ovens, blunders, vacuum cleaners, etc.
Even in a poor country like Uganda, a common E-waste item is Cellular/Mobile Phones. Within our recent memory we have seen a big revolution in cellular phones. In the late 1990s in Uganda only a small group of rich people carried with much pride mobile phones that was nicknamed ‘toolkit’ denoting its large size. Soon blackberries and slimmer phones arrived.
Now a good number of young and old proudly own smartphones that come with various features—cameras with more pixels, good Operating System, Processor, RAM, large Screen Size, SD Card Storage, USB File Transfer, Sensors and much more. It is estimated that in Uganda among the mobile phone users 29% use android phones. We can say for sure that these people previously owned and discarded a number of ‘ordinary’ phones before advancing to internet connected phones.
People are always looking for newer and better models of electronic gadgets that come with extra and latest features. They are not only cellular phones but other gadgets such as Laptop computers, Public Address systems, Home Theatres, etc. In the process of improving or acquiring new phones with better features people throw away the old and rejected phones. In the same way many other household and industrial electric and electronic items are rejected and disposed of, often in an irresponsible way. These items form the E-waste that cause ineffable environmental degradation which affect our health and health of the planet.
Environmentalists point out that in 2016, the world’s population discarded 49 million tons of e-waste (equivalent to about 4,500 Eiffel Towers). It’s estimated that by 2021 that number will grow to more than 57 million tons.
We all agree that our lives are becoming more and more sophisticated. We have become more and more dependent on technology. It has penetrated our daily life beyond our imagination. Semiconductors and sensors are being added to products that never before had them, creating wearable monitors, smart homes, TVs that can stream programming from the internet, and much more. We use Google maps to look for directions, we use digital dictionaries to look for words to use and we are constantly fed with information for daily survival and we are constantly connected with social media for education and entertainment. They are all made possible through electronic gadgets, those become E-waste sooner than later.
Many producers of electronic gadgets do not care to produce devices that are durable. The life span of devices get shorter and shorter making the consumers buy newer ones, thus creating E-waste sooner than later. Profit oriented and unscrupulous companies intentionally plan the obsolescence of their goods by updating the design or software and discontinuing support for older models, so that now it is usually cheaper and easier to buy a new product than to repair an old one. Meanwhile, the companies continue to profit from steady sales.
Due to transport hurdles and unprofitable business details, poor countries such as Uganda are unable to follow the warranty given with the products for repair and exchange. Consumers are forced to discard the gadgets that are with defects and those needing service. This is also an important cause of E-waste in poor countries. Consumers from poor countries are also forced to buy cheap goods from countries such as China and India whose goods are very short lived. It is a cause of large quantities of E-waste. Importing used (rejected) computers and other electrical and electronic goods from affluent countries is a cause of piling heaps of E-waste in poor countries such as Uganda.
In the increased production of Electronic items, earth loses precious metals such as gold, silver, copper, cobalt and others. Failure to recycle the E-waste causes loss of precious metals and failure to dispose rightly and in an environment friendly way, hazardous chemicals and metals cause danger to plant’s life for many years to come. Sometimes the damage caused remains unrepairable and irreversible.
By irresponsible disposal of E-waste materials, especially the toxic heavy metals like lead, mercury, cadmium and beryllium, polluting PVC plastic, and other hazardous chemicals, such as brominated flame retardants emits toxic fumes and gases which can greatly harm human health and the environment. Big calamities with many casualties have taken place in many parts of the world, but no serious steps have been taken to avoid them in the future.
We cannot throw the responsibility of safeguarding the environment to the governments alone. It is the duty of every living person to care for the earth. Fortunately, as time goes by awareness and education on the environment grows. Today even an ordinary person with little formal education knows the dangers of pollution, greenhouse gases, poisonous gas emission, etc. But in practical terms everyone lacks goodwill to protect and care for the earth. The government policy document (https://www.ict.go.ug/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/Electronic-Waste-Management-Policy-for-Uganda.pdf) on managing E-waste should be seriously considered for action. Most of its recommendations are yet to be implemented. Let everyone take personal decisions to translate the policies into actions for the good of the nation and for the good health of every citizen.
Fr. Lazar Arasu SDB
Priest and School Administrator.
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