Nobody knows for sure how much electronic waste is dumped in Pakistan, but it’s easily in the thousands of tons every year. Some of it is generated internally but most is imported from developed countries. It’s not legal under the Basel Convention – to which Pakistan is a party – to import E-waste into the country, and legislation calls for proper handling of what does exist to minimize lead, cadmium, beryllium, and brominated flame retardant contamination, but these laws are not well enforced.
In just two years, between 2005 and 2007, cell phone ownership in Pakistan increased from 1.277 million people to 100 million. In time these phones will be added to Karachi landfills, where they will leach harmful toxins into the soil that will eventually make their way into the Arabian Gulf. The country’s Environmental Ministry acknowledges the country’s Waste Electrical & Electronic Equipment (WEEE) challenges and presented potential solutions at a conference in Japan this past July. It turns out, these toxic heaps represent a potential goldmine for investors and industrious business people.
There are several kinds of E-waste. Zaigham Abbas, a technical officer from Pakistan’s Ministry of Environment broke it down thusly at the WEEE workshop in Osaka:
- Electrical Waste - switches, relays, connectors, and related scrap material;
- Telecommunication Waste - mobile phones, telephones, telephone exchanges, wireless equipment cables, and related scrap material;
- Electronic Waste - metal waste, printed circuit boards, e-equipment and machinery, IC, sockets, and connectors;
- Cable Waste - PVC, pre-insulated copper, and aluminum cable waste;
- Chemical Waste – chemical sludge and residue.
The National Environment Policy of 2005 and the Import Policy Order 2009 are designed to regulate how E-waste is managed in Pakistan, but informal recycling centers – particularly in Karachi – continue to proliferate. Often teenagers are among those who separate out the various materials that can be re-used, which can be dangerous.
Dangers vary depending on the nature of waste being handled. For example, the radioactive source in smoke alarms, Americium, is a known carcinogenic. Sulphur in batteries can cause liver damage, kidney damage, heart damage, eye and throat irritation.
E-waste is shipped to Pakistan, India, China, and many African countries because labor is cheap and environmental standards are lax, making it easier to avoid costly dismantling procedures mandated by laws in developed countries. Lacking such strong environmental oversight, informal recycling centers in Pakistan often throw their E-waste onto a massive bonfire in order to melt down plastics and expose valuable metals that can then be re-used.
This releases harmful pollutants into the atmosphere, including carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and black soot, all of which exacerbate respiratory problems.
Abbas admits that Pakistan lacks formal mechanisms to manage E-waste at the national level and that very little funding has been applied to research and development of suitable recycling technologies. He further emphasizes that the country lacks an inventory of e-waste and that the government has not paid sufficient attention to this issue.
Incentives for change
Achim Steiner, Executive Director of UNEP warns of problems that will arise if e-waste recycling is “left to the vagaries of the informal sector,” according to an article in Science Daily. He adds that establishing proper recycling facilities can have enormous benefits.
In addition to curbing health problems, boosting developing country e-waste recycling rates can have the potential to generate decent employment, cut greenhouse gas emissions and recover a wide range of valuable metals including silver, gold, palladium, copper and indium — by acting now and planning forward many countries can turn an e-challenge into an e-opportunity.
The Basel Action Network is one of the few international organizations committed to rooting out injustices associated with the global trade of E-waste. Despite the absence of national mechanisms, Nokia and Unilever both launched Take Back programs whereby customers are invited to return any brand of phone in exchange for a gift hamper. Radio FM 91, Ary Music, and United Media are among other organizations that have teamed up to make this venture a success.
Opportunity in the heaps
Zaigham Abbas from the Environmental Ministry lists a handful of opportunities that exist in the private sector:
- Pakistan can introduce initiatives for collection and transportation of E-waste under the take back system;
- Public private partnership for the development of E-waste Recycling facilities;
- Create public awareness for benefits of E-waste;
- Investment opportunity for financing in E-waste management under the take-back system.
The bottom line
Although it is true that E-waste in Pakistan is mounting, each new heap also represents a pile of opportunities. Those thousands of tons of dumped computers and phones contain valuable raw materials that can be re-used, obviating the need for additional mining. And if done safely, formal recycling facilities can offer scores of job opportunities. A successful recycling program starts with attractive incentives, which in turns greater government participation.
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