Trinidad and Tobago’s waste management programme provides a model for smaller countries starting to deal with discarded electronics.
Computers, cell phones, mp3 players and digital cameras have all become familiar items in the last 10 years. They are also increasingly present in our rubbish dumps, with old PCs causing particular concern as they contain several toxic substances. The dumping of old electronic equipment is now turning some areas of China, India and Nigeria into environmental disaster zones. For smaller countries, especially those with still developing economies, the problem may not yet be so great. In Trinidad and Tobago, for example, the state Solid Waste Management Company Limited (SWMCOL) decided it was better to act now because, as their environmental manager, Alban Scott, points out, 'there will only be more computers in the years to come, not less.'
'The system here just isn’t ready to absorb e-waste,' adds Scott. 'We mainly use landfill sites but we don’t have the means to separate the different types of waste. Computers, for instance, come with all kinds of hazardous material - bromine dust, lead, cadmium, mercury and arsenic. We are trying to avoid these things getting into the normal stream of waste disposal. That is what is happening in some other countries. We don’t have that problem and we don’t want it.'
SWMCOL has been running its e-waste programme for three years, a large part of which includes informing local residents about the problems of e-waste. The project began with a single radio programme in 2005, explaining electronic waste and its potential environmental hazards. This was followed up by organizing a collection system where residents and businesses could ask SWMCOL to pick up their old PCs. Businesses are the largest users of computers so it was especially important to target them with the safe disposal message. 'We have a lot of big businesses here,' Scott explains, 'and they don’t want to get the name of throwing away waste like that. They were also made aware of the consequences of leaving sensitive data on computers they dispose of. Once they knew the facts they responded very well to the campaign.'
The project has now expanded to four hour-long radio programmes each week, accompanied by regular interviews on television and in local newspapers. SWMCOL staff also visit schools to explain the problems of e-waste and safe waste disposal in general. Plus, there is what has now become an annual symposium on e-waste. Experts are invited to present papers on subjects such as the re-use and recycling of e-waste, the legal implications of exporting old electronic equipment and practical methods of sorting and safely disposing of hazardous materials.
For SWMCOL, an important aspect of these conferences, is that they are open for anyone to attend. Local residents in particular are encouraged to get involved. Alban Scott: 'They can come and hear experts from all over the world talking about e-waste and explaining the issues. At one conference a specialist from Europe showed pictures of the problems in Africa and South East Asia, and the horror of what these computers and their dismantling can cause. That generated a lot of interest and concern.' The symposia also attract media attention, giving the campaign yet more coverage in local newspapers, TV and radio.
An added benefit of these conferences is that they provide an opportunity to discuss cooperation with regional partners. 'Trinidad and Tobago doesn’t produce enough e-waste yet to make a recycling plant economical. We have been trying to work with other Caribbean countries to link together and perhaps come up with a scheme where we can combine recycling possibilities.'
The Basel Convention
Trinidad and Tobago has made a deliberate effort to keep e-waste out of the country, banning imports of old electronic equipment, including computers and even mobile phones. The movement of all hazardous waste between countries is regulated by the Basel Convention, an international treaty signed by 170 nations. The demands for such a treaty grew in the late 1980s after two incidents involving ships carrying toxic waste, the Karin B and the Pelicano, made headlines around the world.
China and India are also parties to the convention, but they remain popular destinations for toxic waste. Exporters exploit loopholes in the convention as, for instance, the cargo may be covered by the treaty but the ships carrying it are not. There is also a lot of money to be made from e-waste, making it worthwhile for unscrupulous traders to pay off corrupt officials. Combined with a lack of political will from many countries, efforts to enforce the convention are continually undermined.
At the moment, after collection, SWMCOL stores the old computers, Tvs and even batteries until there is enough to make it cost effective to transport out of the country, usually to recycling plants in the United States. As a signatory to the Basel Convention (see box) Trinidad and Tobago does not allow imports of e-waste into the country. Regulations are strictly adhered to, and even refurbished computers for schools or NGOs are not brought in. Until recently, schools received donated computers from local businesses but now the Ministry of Education runs its own scheme to provide them. Most children now have access and many even have a PC at home.
Having access to technology is a big advantage for the young people of Trinidad and Tobago, but more computers now inevitably means more e-waste in the future. The only solution, says Alban Scott, is to lobby electronics manufacturers to produce more environmentally friendly goods. 'They say they are looking at the issue,' he explains, 'but we, as a small organization, cannot influence these large corporations, we can only lobby them and provide information to get their support. In the meantime, we can encourage people to buy only the brands which are the least hazardous. When producers see that’s what the buyer wants then maybe we will eventually see a computer that is truly environmentally friendly.'