ATIF HASSAN (atif.hassan@dacb.edu.pk)
Lecturer, Defence Authority College of Business, Karachi
July 13 - 19, 2009

Electronic waste, e-waste, or Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) is described insecurely discarded, surplus, obsolete, broken, electrical, or electronic devices. The processing of electronic waste in developing countries causes serious health and pollution problems because electronic equipment contains some very serious contaminants such as lead, cadmium, beryllium, and brominates flame-retardants. Even in developed countries recycling and discarding of e-waste involves major risk for examples to workers and communities and great care must be taken to avoid unsafe exposure to recycling operations.

The quantity of electronic products discarded globally has increased recently, with 20-50 million tons generated every year. If such a huge figure is hard to imagine, think of it like this - if the estimated amount of e-waste generated every year would be put into containers on a train it would go once around the world!

Electronic waste (e-waste) now makes up five percent of all municipal solid waste worldwide, nearly the same amount as all plastic packaging, but it is much more hazardous. Not only developed countries generate e-waste Asia also discards an estimated 12 million tons each year.

E-waste is now the fastest growing component of the municipal solid waste stream because people are upgrading their mobile phones, computers, televisions, audio equipments, and printers more frequently than ever before. Mobile phones and computers are causing the biggest problem because they are replaced most often.

End-of-life products find their way to recycling yards in countries such as India and China and Pakistan, where poorly protected workers dismantle them, often by hand, in appalling conditions. About 80 percent of the e-waste generated in the US is exported to India, China and Pakistan, and unorganized recycling and backyard scrap-trading forms close to 100 percent of total e-waste processing activity. Many of Pakistan's corporations burn e-waste such as PC monitors, PCBs, CDs, motherboards, cables, toner cartridges, light bulbs and tube-lights in the open along with garbage, releasing large amounts of mercury and lead into the atmosphere.

Outdated technology is brought into Pakistan in the form of low-cost refurbished computers. This helps a common person to afford such appliances and at the same time due to limited or no warranty on these machines coupled with incompatibility with latest software the purchase can turn into a trouble than a blessing.

Tens of thousands of used computers and related equipment, which are tricky and costly to dispose of in developed countries because of their hazardous nature, are annually imported under the pretext of second-hand machinery. The traders that make millions through these deals use the excuse of facilitating computer literacy in the country.

Owing to such rapid improvements in technology, consumers in developed countries switch as soon as possible to newer and safer machines and simply discard their old equipment. The environmentally safe disposal of such waste is bound by strict laws in the West and is an expensive plan. Therefore, either an extensive portion is discarded in developing countries such as Pakistan, where such environmental laws do not exist or the officials in charge are inefficient or corrupt. Disguised as technology transfer or second-hand machinery to facilitate low-cost goods production, the toxic waste is sold to traders in poorer countries.

Pakistan is one of those few countries in the world that imports second-hand computers. Motive is that the customers prefer to buy a used computer due to near to the ground cost. Pakistanis are still consuming over 500,000 second hand computers every year. Now new and old computer has minor cost differences. New computers are environment friendly and consume less electricity. As we are facing a major energy crisis today, this can be controlled by using the latest technology, which goes a long way in saving electricity. A lot of new software and applications, which have become the basic need of most PC users cannot be run on the obsolete machines being offered by the importers of refurbished computers.

The IT sector is taking baby-steps towards dismantling e-waste through the organized sector. Additionally, the support from the Government is not up to expectations.

There is a need for government intervention, which can play a significant role in discouraging the import of obsolete technology. It was further observed that there exists an urgent need to educate the masses about the adverse impact of such computers on the industry, environment, and consumers at large. In this regard, the major industry players should introduce competitively priced computers to discourage the use of second hand PCs.