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ELECTRONIC WASTE IN NIGERIA: AN ACCUMULATING TIME-BOMB
The term electronic waste (or e-waste) includes all types of  obsolete, discarded or unwanted electronic equipment. Thus, computers, cell phones, radio sets, refrigerators etc constitute e-waste. These items produce complicated multi-material waste with different proportions of metals, plastics and glass. They can be polluting if they are not adequately treated before disposal.
A visit to a typical electronics market in Lagos, especially the ones dealing with the “Tokunboh” variety, leaves much to be desired. Nigeria has literally been turned into an international dump site for all manner of electronic junk. For purposes of illustration, a report published by the U.S. – based “San Diego Tribune”newspaperon December 2, 2005 (Website:www.signonsandiego.com/uniontrib/20051202/news) revealed that up to 80 percent of electronic waste generated in the United States meant for recycling is quietly exported to other countries. These include some 350 million computers in use in the U.S. which are fast becoming obsolete. The recipients of these exports are mostly Third World countries where, in the words of the newspaper, “environmental restrictions are lax and economies poor…” According to the report, computers, radios and television sets are dismantled in crude fashion by child labourers likely unaware of the hazardous toxins with which they are working.
It is particularly worrisome that the health hazards resulting from accumulation of e-waste transcends to the labourers working with the electronic devices. It is currently the practice for dealers in second-hand electronic gadgets to dismantle serviceable items, extract perceived valuable metals from the equipment and send the remaining scrap to landfills or incinerators. Consequently, both the labourers dismantling devices in the second-hand electronics market as well as scavengers and members of the public within the vicinity of the landfills (or dumpsites) are exposed to many chemicals and their negative health effects. The incalculable damage done to the soil within the vicinity of the dumpsites is better imagined than experienced. The significance of this trend can be better appreciated when viewed against the frightening reality that just one-seventh of a teaspoon of mercury contaminates 20 water acres of lake, making the fish unfit to eat!
Perhaps a more specific perspective of health hazards associated with heavy metals will lead to a greater appreciation of our subject matter. For instance, two studies commissioned by the Canadian environment group, “Environment Canada” (Website: www.ec.gc.ca/envirozine/english/issues/33/feature1) in 2003 highlighted the fact that exposure to high levels of lead, cadmium and mercury in the environment has been linked to adverse effects on human health and wildlife. These include subtle neurobehavioral effects for lead, chronic kidney damage for cadmium, and sensory or neurological impairments for mercury.
In Canada, several major brand owners of electronic products have identified that they are committed to developing, financing and administering nationwide programme to divert e-waste from disposal by ensuring that it is properly recycled. This concept, commonly referred to as Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), places the onus on producers to properly manage their products at the post-consumer stage. EPR has rapidly gained much popularity, both in Canada and other parts of the world, because it has a potential to stimulate producers to design longer-lasting, less hazardous, and more recyclable products.

PROVIDING A PANACEA FOR THE NIGERIAN SITUATION:
THE IMPERATIVE OF CHEMICAL MANAGEMENT

In the light of the rather frightening information and statistics reeled out above, the need for a sound chemical management system for Nigeria cannot be over-emphasized. It is in this light that one cannot but commend the Federal Government of Nigeria, through the instrumentality of the Federal Ministry of Environment in collaboration with other stakeholders (including the Institute of Chartered Chemists of Nigeria, ICCON), for recent developments in this regard. It is very gratifying that the government recently inaugurated a National Committee for the implementation of the National Chemical Policy. This policy is expected to be tailored along the lines of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)–sanctioned Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM).

Equally heart-warming is the fact that the said Federal Government implementation committee is being coordinated by renowned Nigerian Chemists, including the pioneer President of ICCON and world-renowned Environmental Chemist, Prof. Oladele Osibanjo and chieftain of the Nigerian Environmental Society (NES), Prof. Babajide Alo. Both men are SAICM experts, and there is little or no doubt they will do justice to this crucial national assignment. A meeting of the Implementation Committee has already been held, with ICCON fully represented. The meeting mapped out strategies for the immediate future.
There is no gainsaying the fact that the issue of electronic waste should feature prominently in any policy aimed at chemical management in Nigeria. The menace of electronic waste in the country is assuming the status of a time-bomb waiting to explode. The health hazard to which human beings and the environment are being subjected to really gives cause for concern.
While not trying to pre-empt the learned personalities on the Government’s Implementation Committee, it may serve our purpose to point out some areas of priority as regards the thorny issue of e-waste. These include the establishment of environmentally friendly recycling mechanism, with the possibility of reverting electronic equipment to a raw material form; and hence, diminish the demand for new products and virgin raw materials. The benefits of recycling end-of-life electronics cannot be over-emphasized; and these include recovering of useful metals for future use, conservation of natural resources – as air and water pollution caused by hazardous disposal is avoided, reduction of greenhouse gas emissions caused by manufacturing of new products etc.
Conservative estimates put the number of computers that arrive Lagos ports on monthly basis at about 400,000; with about 75% of these being obsolete and unserviceable. Hence, they end up being dismantled, and the residual scrap taken to land-fills and other dump sites.
Now, beyond the quick money (by way of refurbishing and re-selling some of the computers) being made by the traders, one may literally shudder when the enormity of health hazards associated with this trade is considered. Is it the sea of disemboweled electronic gadgets that have been discarded, and have virtually taken over our landscape? Or the hazardous substances (including heavy metals) to which these largely ignorant traders are exposed to? Even when such discarded TV or computers parts find their way to dump sites, the sites themselves are usually set ablaze indiscriminately, with the burning metals producing fumes to be inhaled by all and sundry!

CONTROL MEASURES IN OTHER LANDS
Conscious of the danger posted to human beings and the environment by e-waste, some European countries in 1990’s banned the disposal of electronic waste in landfills.
According to the online encyclopedia, “Wikipedia” (website: www.wikipedia.org/wiki/E-waste), this ban has created an e-waste processing industry in Europe.
In Switzerland for instance, first electronic waste recycling system was implemented in 1991 beginning with the collection of old refrigerators. Over the years, all other electric and electronic devices were gradually added to the system. Legislation followed in 1998, and since January 2005 it has been possible to return all electronic waste to sales points and other collection points free of charge. There are two established PROs (Producer Responsibility Organizations); they are namely, SWICO which mainly handles electronic waste and SENS mainly responsible for that of electronic appliances. The total amount of recycled electronic waste exceeds 10kg per capita per year.
The European Union further advances the e-waste policy in Europe by implementing the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive in 2002 which holds manufacturers responsible for e-waste disposal at end-of-life.
In the United States, e-waste legislation is limited to the state level due to stalled efforts in the United States Congress regarding multiple e-waste legislation bills (Wikipedia). Nevertheless, concerted efforts are being made to curtail the improper disposal of e-waste. For instance, some recycling companies now guarantee in writing that the items dropped off will not be sent abroad for dismantling. This is a good start and these companies are not alone. The Seattle-based Basel Action Network and the Human Rights Watch, for instance, run programmes to eliminate this trade (“SAN Diego Tribune”).    

CONCLUSION
The environment is undoubtedly Mankind’s most common heritage. Hence, no effort made towards its preservation is too much. Furthermore, the most important assets of any society are that society’s human resources - since this resource coordinates and harnesses other resources to make them beneficial.
In the light of these, the preservation of human beings and the environment in which humans live are undoubtedly mankind’s greatest priorities. These two indispensable resources are under threat from the menace of e-waste; and should be saved from destruction. Government at various levels should liaise with ICCON and other stakeholders towards nipping this obvious time-bomb in the bud. The time to act is NOW! A stitch in time, they say, saves nine.
 
 

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