The UAE is drawing up regulations and developing recycling facilities for the disposal of electronic waste to curb the widespread practice of throwing potentially hazardous phones, computers and other electronic products out with regular garbage.
The term electronic waste – or e-waste – can include almost all kinds of electrical and electronic equipment, including computers, mobiles, TVs and household appliances.
E-waste contains a number of substances that can be hazardous to human health through the inhalation of toxic fumes or the build-up of harmful substances in water, soil or food sources. Other e-waste components, such as lead, cadmium and mercury are dangerous to come into direct contact with.
As the life-span of computers and mobile phones has dropped over time, the amount of electronic waste generated around the world has dramatically risen.
Statistics show that in 2012, the world collectively generated approximately 49 million metric tonnes of e-waste, about 43kg for each of the world’s inhabitants.
This number is expected to continue rising. Researchers estimate that between 2012 and 2017, the amount of e-waste generated around the world will go up 33 per cent to 65 million metric tonnes.
Globally, between 15 and 20 per cent of e-waste generated is recycled. In the Middle East, however, only five per cent is taken to recycling facilities.
Researchers estimate that only 5 per cent of e-waste generated in the Middle East, for example, is taken to recycling facilities.
According to global statistics compiled by various agencies through the “solving the e-waste problem” (StEP) initiative, in 2012, the last year for which data is available, the UAE generated 29.28kg of e-waste per inhabitant, a total of 162.11 metric tonnes.
Habiba Al Marashi, Chairwoman of the Emirates Environmental Group (EEG), said the relative wealth of the UAE means that the country generates a high volume of e-waste compared to most countries globally.
“The major reason for the large amount of e-waste in the UAE is due to the high per capita income in the country,” she explained. “The citizens have a higher spending capacity compared to other Arab countries, and thus there is a continuous stream of electronics being replaced in every organisation, academic institution and household.”
Al Marashi said the country is making significant process in dealing with the e-waste problem.
“The UAE is still developing its e-waste recycling facilities and legal framework and considerable progress has been made,” she said.
Ken Neil, a Dubai-based independent e-waste expert, said the small size of the UAE makes it difficult to deal with the large amounts of e-waste generated by its inhabitants.
“In the UAE the issues relate to being a relatively small country and small population which leads to difficulties in companies putting together a sufficient infrastructure to support the huge range of items which would requite processing,” he said.
Additional e-waste processing infrastructure, Neil noted, would inevitably lead to the need to charge for such services, which might not be possible.
Globally, Qatar is the worst culprit per capita, generating 63.08 kg of e-waste per inhabitant.
Like Qatar, residents of the UAE are more likely to purchase their mobile phone and discard them improperly once they are discarded in favour of newer models.
“This compares to other markets where contracts exist with the providers in which people keep their phones for a minimum time of one year, but the company will then have contracts in place for the collection and processing of a used phone.
In absolute terms, the world’s largest source of electronic waste is the United States, which generated a staggering 9,359.78 metric tonnes that same year.
Aside from the health concerns, the improper disposal of electronic goods can lead to identity theft should data fall into the wrong hands.
“E-waste includes data bearing items such as smart phones, tablets, PCs, laptops and game consoles. On any or all of these, we store personal information, whether this is login details to our e-mail, Google Play Store, or Facebook, but also things like passport copies, Emirates ID or personal photographs, all of which we would not want to get into someone else’s ownership,” he said.
“Everything you need to destroy someone’s life is on there,” he added.
Neil also noted that organisations risk losing confidential information such as salary information, intellectual property, credit card and network information or client contact details.
Neil encouraged local residents to properly dispose of e-waste after removing SIM cards and external hard drives to avoid privacy problems.
“Make sure the data is destroyed and a certificate is issued,” he said. “This means that they should speak to the organisation providing the services and do their research on this.”
Properly disposing of non-data bearing items is easier, as many parts can be re-used even when the device itself is no longer functioning properly.
Currently, no firm rules or regulations are in place for the disposal of electronic goods in the UAE, but despite the lack of regulations, various municipalities in the UAE periodically run programmes in which discarded electronic products — computers, for example — are collected and recycled.
“Such solutions, even though small, provide a path to the future where e-waste can be properly collected and recycled, similar to European countries,” EEG chairwoman Habiba al Marashi said.
Additionally, the government has held a number of conferences to discuss e-waste management, and is working with the EEG and a number of private-run recycling facilities to raise awareness of the issue.
“The future of e-waste recycling in the UAE is a bright one,” Al Marashi said.
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