Network Updates / Nairobi, Kenya / 2019-02-26

Closing the loop on electronic waste for health and resource efficiency:

Mining the world's fastest-growing waste stream is affecting the health of thousands of workers through air, water and soil pollution-- but action is starting to ramp up

Nairobi, Kenya
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Sala Muntana is concerned. She works in Agbogbloshie, in Accra, Ghana, one of the most well-known, profiled e-waste dumps in the world, where groups of young men dismantle and burn electronics– discarded mainly by people in Europe and the United States– to retrieve the trace amounts of precious metals they contain.

Muntana, profiled in a BBC clip, sells drinks and water to these workers, and says she tries to avoid the smoke, getting the workers to come to her stall instead of venturing out among the thick black plumes of smoke– in a large part because she’s seven months pregnant.

“But the smoke is all over the place… I am scared something will happen to my unborn baby because the smoke is really affecting us,” she said.

“Sometimes you just get stomach upsets.”

Muntana is just one face representing many who are suffering from the health impacts of a widespread failure to adequately deal with e-waste, the fastest-growing waste stream in the world, coming in at 44 million tonnes globally in 2017 (heavier than every commercial aircraft ever built).

According to a recent report by the Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy (PACE) and the UN E-Waste Coalition, only 20 per cent is dealt with “appropriately”; little is known about what happens to the rest of it, except that it largely ends up in landfill– much of it handled by hand by those like Muntana’s customers, informal workers who are exposed to hazardous and carcinogenic substances including mercury, lead and cadmium.

These informal e-waste workers– it’s not known exactly how many there are in the world, but estimates in some countries number in the hundreds of thousands– are tapping into a waste stream that contains 100 times more gold per tonne than gold ore, at great risk to their health and the health of all working and living in the vicinity. Other precious elements in e-waste include silver, platinum, cobalt and rare earth elements like palladium.

The annual value of global e-waste is over $62.5 billion. But reaping it under informal, inappropriate settings comes at a high price to health.

The report, A New Circular Vision for Global Electronics, states: “…basic recycling techniques to burn the plastic from electronic goods leaving the valuable metals (melting down lead in open pots, or dissolving circuit boards in acid) lead to adult and child workers, as well as their families, exposed to many toxic substances. In many countries, women and children make up to 30% of the workforce in informal, crude e-waste processing and are therefore particularly vulnerable.”

The chemicals released by improper treatment of e-waste contaminate soil and leach into groundwater, putting food supply systems and water sources at risk. And, Muntana’s worries for her baby are not unfounded: the study emphasizes the wealth of scientific studies that link exposure to e-waste to increases in spontaneous miscarriages, still and premature births, reduced birthweights and birth lengths, as well as birth defects and infant mortality.

Toxic, carcinogenic elements have been found in the bloodstreams of informal workers at dumping grounds for e-waste where open burning is used to harvest metals.

A recent study that included new mothers in and around Agbogbloshie found that polychlorinated biphenyl (PCBs), a group of chlorinated organic chemicals that are used for a variety of industrial and commercial purposes and are released when e-waste is burnt, show up in breastmilk, in some cases at levels that are just on the threshold of “safe” exposure for human babies.

But there’s good news: UN agencies, the World Economic Forum, the Global Environment Facility and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development are calling for an overhaul of the current electronics system. Seven UN agencies last year signed a Letter of Intent expressing their commitment towards tackling the e-waste challenge, and, in April this year, the partnership adds three more entities– the World Health Organization, International Trade Centre and UN Human Settlements Programme.

The agreement will feed into ongoing efforts through: support for a UN system-wide knowledge sharing platform on e-waste for UN entities; implementing strengthened UN system-wide programmatic collaboration on e-waste; strengthening UN system-wide engagement with other stakeholder groups; and considering ways to deliver as one in countries to tackle national e-waste problems.

Meanwhile, the Government of Nigeria, along with the Global Environment Facility and UN Environment, last month announced a $15-million initiative to set up a circular e-waste system in Nigeria.

According to the UN Environment press release: “To help address the e-waste challenge, and grasp the opportunity of the circular economy, today the Nigerian Government, the Global Environment Facility and UN Environment announced a $2-million investment to kick off the formal e-waste recycling industry in Nigeria. The new investment is expected to leverage over $13 million in additional co-financing from the private sector.”

Up to 100,000 people work in the informal e-waste sector in Nigeria, according to the International Labour Organization– workers that the investment will benefit through the creation of a system that formalizes their work, giving them safe and decent employment, while capturing the latent value in the 500,000 tonnes of e-waste disposed of in Nigeria annually.

This upgrade and formalization of the industry is an opportunity to provide safe, decent work for thousands of workers in formal recycling plants, but it also sets a much-needed example: only 67 countries have some form of legislation in place to deal with e-waste, covering about two-thirds of the global population, and in many regions in Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia, e-waste is not always high on the political agenda and regulations not well-enforced.

For Muntana, her baby, the workers in open, unregulated e-waste dumpsites around the world and all who live and work around those dumpsites, the spotlight on safer, formal management of e-waste could help improve both their health and employment prospects while closing an important consumption loop.

Read the UN Environment press release: UN report: Time to seize opportunity, tackle challenge of e-waste

Banner photo by Abraham Mwaura/Urban Health Initiative.