Garbage into gold

October 06, 2013

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- Courtesy Photo
- Courtesy Photo

What becomes of our old computer when the raddi-paper wallah wheels it away on his cart? What happens to the old mobile phones that we throw away only to replace them with brand new ones? Incredibly enough, the umpteen number of battery cells that we have thrown out in our entire life make each one of us a substantial contributor to the growing problem of e-waste.

Not all of it is ours. Old computers, keyboards, television sets, mobile phones, printers, fax machines, copy machines, CD players and electronic games make up the thousands of tons of e-waste from the world over which is dumped in Pakistan every year. This e-waste arrives at Karachi port in special containers usually weighing from 20,000 to 25,000kg.

In 2011 alone, the total domestic sale of used electronic products in the United States was valued at $19.2bn, as compared to the export of these products which was valued at $1.45bn — a glimpse of the growing industry of electronic products that are to become the e-waste of tomorrow.

Available data indicates that over 112,000 laptops and desktop computers are discarded every day in the US alone, while around 40m metric tons of e-waste is produced globally each year. Around 13pc of that waste is recycled — mostly in developing countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka. China and India have strengthened their laws about the import of e-waste from developed countries; so it is likely that illegal electronic waste will increase manifold in Pakistan in the coming months.

Though the business of importing e-waste in the country remains illegal under the Basel Convention, to which Pakistan is a signatory, it is going on without any check. This waste, however, can be turned into a lucrative business for investors and local entrepreneurs but only if the government frames special laws to regulate it and facilitate the business community.

“I spend around Rs5m to Rs6m each year to import second-hand goods from western countries,” says Sohail Kashif, a businessman in Rawalpindi. “I can increase my investment to even Rs15 to Rs20m if the government protects the business through proper legislation.” He says the import of these ‘second-hand goods’ began to grow in Pakistan only after businessmen learned to extract valuable substances such as copper, iron, silicon, nickel and gold from the electronic items.

Kashif laments that there is no concept of recycling ‘second-hand goods’ in Pakistan. This ultimately results in loss of millions of rupees each year. “The government can earn millions of rupees in revenue each year if it registers companies interested in recycling of electronic items,” he suggests.

Recycling e-waste has become a growing problem for developed countries as well. However, they are combating this by introducing public awareness programmes and framing strict laws to regulate it.

Pakistan can seize the opportunity by framing special laws to regulate the business and offering businessmen specific incentives to invest in it. This will not only create job opportunities for skilled labour but also attract foreign investors.

Asif Shuja Khan, Director General Pakistan Environmental Protection Agency, says that a special committee comprising provincial chief secretaries has been set up under his chair to look into the matter. “We are helping the provinces to frame laws in order to regulate the business of e-waste and turn it into an opportunity.”

After the passage of the 18th amendment, the environment ministry that looks after the subject has been devolved to the provinces. So, now the centre can only supervise and guide the provinces to form specific legislation on the issue.

He says that a number of foreign companies have contacted the Pakistan Environment Protection Agency (EPA) to start work in the recycling industry and reuse e-waste in the country “and we are trying to take them on board. If the business is legalised, Pakistan can earn millions of rupees, while thousands of people can get jobs with minimal health risks,” he adds.

An International Labour Organisation (ILO) report titled, The global impact of e-waste: addressing the challenge, says the informal methods of recycling used electronic material also pose serious risks to human health and the environment.

Shuja Khan says the risks can be lowered if proper measures are adopted at the working sites and the informal industry is legalised. He advises that workers at the e-waste sites should wear appropriate safety gear such as goggles, gloves and arm protection besides ensuring proper ventilation and light at the work place.

It is the responsibility of the commerce ministry to keep a check on import of e-waste, make it a thriving business and legalise it. However, the ministry’s deputy secretary (foreign trade), Muhammad Ashraf, says that no specific rules are framed to regulate e-waste. “The ministry devises a formal policy on any issue only after authentic proposals are submitted to it by stakeholders.”

At the moment the so-called ‘stakeholders’ are involved in the business of informally importing electronic waste into the country and are not answerable to any government agency as to what condition the imported goods are in. They are also not held accountable for the environmental and health impacts of the recycling methods that are currently used. The ministry should take a more proactive approach and legalise the industry instead of waiting for stakeholders to push them for it.

The writer is a journalist based in Islamabad. He can be reached at aamirsaeed@ymail.com