Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines, Health, Latin America & the Caribbean

More Cell-Phones than People, and No E-Waste Treatment in Guatemala

GUATEMALA CITY, Apr 2 2012 (IPS) - The lack of adequate management of electronic waste in Guatemala is posing a serious threat to the environment and health, as demand for electronic devices has soared to the point that there are more cell phones than people.

E-waste goes untreated in Guatemala. Credit: Alex E. Proimos/CC BY 2.0

E-waste goes untreated in Guatemala. Credit: Alex E. Proimos/CC BY 2.0

Computers, mobile phones, refrigerators, microwave ovens and a long list of other devices and appliances end up in garbage dumps and even rivers, and the public is unaware of the danger posed by toxic substances in the products, experts warn.

Chrome, mercury, lead, selenium and arsenic are some of the most toxic substances in e-waste, which can cause serious damages to health, Mayron España, director of E-Waste de Guatemala, an NGO that collects such products for recycling, told IPS.

Brain damage, cancer, miscarriages, reduced male fertility and genetic malformations in foetuses are some of the health effects caused by exposure to these heavy metals, studies have found.

“And all of these metals end up in the water sooner or later,” because they seep into groundwater or because e-waste is dumped into surface water bodies like rivers, said España, whose organisation collects e-waste to be recycled abroad.

“Water is the big environmental buffer. It is also a finite resource on a global level, which means it will become scarce,” he said.

Guatemala does not even have general guidelines on the handling of solid waste, the expert noted. In the meantime, he said, the use of electronic devices is growing exponentially.

In the case of cell phones, “they are used for just six or nine months, because new models are constantly coming out,” he said. “Fashion, tastes, attitudes and habits are driving people to consume more and more things, even when they don’t need them.”

According to Guatemala’s telecoms regulator, the Superintendencia de Telecomunicaciones, the number of mobile phones in use in 2011 reached 20.7 million in this country of 14 million people – up from just 3.1 million in 2004.

And a similar increase has been seen in the case of computers, digital cameras and TV sets, and other products.

But these devices are highly polluting. A single nickel cadmium battery cell phone can pollute 50,000 litres of water, according to environmental watchdog Greenpeace.

A study on e-waste by the Guatemalan Centre for Cleaner Production, “Diagnóstico sobre la generación de desechos electrónicos en Guatemala”, concluded that by 2015, at least 13,000 tons of cell phones and 18,600 tons of computers and accessories will have been thrown out in this Central American country.

The report proposes the “three R’s”- reduce, reuse, recycle – to curb the negative impact of e-waste on the environment.

The study, carried out by two engineers, Sonia Solís and Andrés Chicol, calls for the formulation of e-waste management plans as part of a national strategy that should include activities aimed at raising public awareness about the problem.

Adriana Grimaldi, a chemistry professor at the private Mariano Gálvez University, stressed the urgent need to address the question of e-waste because of the serious risks posed to the environment and human health.

Grimaldi said PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), whose production is banned by the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, are among the “most powerful and carcinogenic” substances used in electrical devices like transformers and capacitors.

She told IPS that people “should not fight with chemical elements, which can also be very useful, but must learn to manage them property, because otherwise they can pose serious dangers.”

Julio Urías, an adviser to the Red Giresol – the Guatemalan network of environmental promoters for prevention and integrated management of solid waste – says there is much to be done in the area of waste management in Guatemala, although he also mentioned important efforts by social organisations and private companies.

He said that an essential step is to draft and enforce “viable legislation.” He also called for “education and information for the population about consumption habits.”

In addition, the expert said “incentives and clear rules are needed in order to take advantage of the profits that e-waste management and recycling can generate. But just because a law is passed doesn’t mean things are going to work,” he added.

The government’s National Commission on Solid Waste Management estimates that just five percent of the 7,000 tons of solid waste produced daily in this country is recycled.

However, there are positive experiences with recycling, which show that it can generate opportunities for people who have none.

That is the case of Edulibre, a non-profit that donates old computers to public schools in poor areas.

“Companies donate their old computers to us,” Javier Hernández, a computer technician who works with Edulibre, told IPS. “We check them and install our own operating system that we have adapted for Guatemala, from free software.”

Since 2007, the organisation has also set up five computer labs in the capital and other parts of the country, which serve more than 1,000 children, while protecting the environment by reusing old equipment.

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