Electronic Garbage Poses Increasing Dangers
Por Daniela Estrada
Chile is struggling with how to handle tons of old mobile phones, computers and other obsolete electronic items. It was not until this year that a law was passed to regulate management of this latest type of toxic waste.
Computers and mobile telephones that have fallen into disuse are forming a mountain of electronic waste in Chile. But few people seem to realize the magnitude of the environmental and health problems they pose.
Heavy metals -- like cadmium, lead and mercury -- are found in electronic components, and they are a danger to the environment and human health.
The quantity of obsolete equipment accumulating in Chile is cause for concern: more than five million used cellular phones, more than 1.5 million computers and thousands of other items, such as TVs, video recorders, calculators, printers and photocopiers.
''The situation is serious, given that this country has not even resolved the problem of managing normal household waste. Instead of sanitary landfills, there continue to be unregulated dumps and there is almost no recycling,'' Sara Larraín, director of the non-governmental group Sustainable Chile, told Tierramérica.
It wasn't until June of this year that Congress approved the Hazardous Waste Management Act, which is a step forward in waste treatment, but does not go far enough because it lacks the necessary oversight mechanisms, she said.
Back in 1990, just 10,000 Chileans had mobile phones, but by March 2004 there were 7.9 million such phones in this country of 15.8 million people. According to calculations by the government telecommunications office, Subtel, by the end of this year there will be nine million cell phones in Chilean hands.
A similar phenomenon surrounds personal computers. In 1994, just over 100,000 computers were sold in Chile, but the record was set in 2000 when nearly 420,000 computers were sold. In 2003, Chileans purchased 407,742 computers.
These new items become ''old'' in no time. A mobile phone has an average life of 18 months. A computer manufactured in 2004 will likely be considered obsolete in three years.
A big portion of this new type of garbage -- also known as ''e-waste'' -- is supposed to end up in a collection center in the western Santiago district of Carrascal. There, equipment is dismantled and useful parts are resold, but the rest of the waste continues to accumulate.
The problem of e-waste is not, of course, a problem exclusive to Chile. At the first E-Waste Seminar, held last month in Santiago, it was stressed that just 11 percent of the electronic waste produced worldwide is recycled.
Recycling includes dismantling to recover useful parts and re-using metals and other materials. The recyclable materials are often melted down to manufacture new electronic items.
The only Chilean company dedicated to the recovery of electronic waste is Recycla, which says only clean technologies are used in the process.
The two-year-old firm has a plant in the Pudahuel district of the capital. It is set up to handle computers and mobile phones in an effort to recover aluminum, copper, bronze, stainless steel and lead -- metals that are then sold to industry.
Recycla holds contracts with many big Chilean companies and has also established a strategic alliance with Hidronor, the only local firm dedicated to managing dangerous waste. Recycla sends cell phone batteries and computer monitors to Hidronor.
Recycla is conducting an awareness campaign among the companies and health authorities. The company's environment manager, Mauricio Núñez, told Tierramérica it has been difficult to raise awareness in the business world about the seriousness of the problem.
''We know it's a slow process, but we are sure that as long as more companies are certified under the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) 14.000 Standard, which obligates businesses to manage the waste they produce, things are going to change.''
Both Recycla and Sustainable Chile work under the assumption that the citizenry has little knowledge of the importance of recycling electronic products.
In Larraín's opinion, as long as there is no national policy to guide product certification and other manufacturer obligations, Chilean consumers will fail to grasp the issue's importance.
''If the products bear a label indicating that the product was made under strict environmental standards, as is done in Europe, people would have a new element for making their purchasing choice, not just price and quality,'' stressed the environmental activist.
* Daniela Estrada is an IPS contributor.