2012 starts the final countdown for a decision to be made in Argentina about its electronic waste. Whilst last year the Minimum Premises for the Management of Electric and Electronic Waste (e-waste) Bill was passed in senate with 54 positive votes against one, it is now waiting to be formally discussed in Congress for it to be nationally instituted, after a meeting at the end of last year failed to achieve quorum.
This portion of urban solid waste, which includes not only mobile phones but also computers, batteries, television sets and other household appliances, is growing faster as people renew their electronics more often than ever. Only in the last year, one million computers, ten million mobile phones and 400 million batteries were discarded in Argentina. Each inhabitant throws away an average of 3kg of e-waste a year, totalling 120 thousand tonnes nationwide. This problem, however, is not unique to Argentina: worldwide, it is estimated that between 20 and 50 million tonnes of e-waste is discarded every year.
“We need a regulatory framework for environmental protection at national level and [we need to] especially regulate the management of electrical and electronic equipment waste,” said senator Daniel Filmus from Frente Para La Victoria, who originally presented the proposal in 2008.
The 28-page long proposed law suggests that producers be legally and financially responsible for the management of electronics that are no longer used by consumers, as well as the prohibition of toxic substances to be used in the manufacturing of new products. It also establishes the creation of a national infrastructure for disposal, storage, transport, reuse and recycling of electronic waste in coordination with the Secretary for Environment and Sustainable Development.
According to Escrap, a network of operators of e-waste and by-products industry in Argentina, only 24-32% of e-waste is currently recycled, reused or treated in any way in Argentina. So far, the rest of electronics have other final destinations.
Between 35-40% is kept in households, offices and warehouses, as people are unsure of what to do with them. The remainder, a further 30-35%, is buried in landfills or left in open rubbish piles. There is also what Escrap calls an “informal sector”, groups who will look in these piles for cables, plates, engines or plastic and then sell them in “informal markets”.
The dumping of e-waste is an environmental disaster. Most products are made up of metals and plastics that may take centuries to disintegrate, but also contain heavy metals and toxic substances which are damaging to our health and pollute the air, soil, rivers and water tables, such as lead, mercury, cadmium, hexavalent chromium, polybrominated biphenyls and polybrominateddiphenyl. According to a report released by Greenpeace, some of the possible effects of contamination are cancers, neurological toxicity (which may lead, for example, to memory loss) and damages to the circulatory, reproductive and nervous systems. Lead and mercury are particularly harmful to pregnant women and babies.
Greenpeace Argentina, who have been launching responsible e-waste treatment campaigns since 2007, have publicly expressed their discontentment with the lack of commitment from the government to reach a decision on the subject. “People talk a lot about how e-waste is the ‘garbage of the future’,” Yanina Rullo, the coordinator for the e-waste campaign at Greenpeace said. “It is not the future’s garbage: it is the garbage we already have now.”
She added that she thought the bill had “real financial potential” as it could generate jobs. So why is the government taking so long to reach a decision?
“Last year was a complicated one legislatively because of the national and the city elections and the lack of development of this law was because of that. These activities took four to five months from the regular statutory dynamics.”
However, she seems to think positively about the future ahead. “This is a bill which does not have serious opposition from the manufacturers, they have an understanding that this is something that will eventually happen as it did in Europe in 2003,” she explained. “Even the National Institute for Technological Industry [INTI] has supported and has been working on this issue for a few years now, as well as other environmental organisations. This has been a problem of political structure, which hopefully will be sorted this year.”
However, another critical point is the lack of recycling technology. In Argentina there are only around a dozen qualified operators who recycle between 2-15% of the e-waste, while the rest is exported to Europe where countries like France and Germany hold the technology to deal with more complex treatment of this kind of waste. With this law, the government will have to encourage the development of new recovery and treatment technologies in the country.
The subject of infrastructure, however, is relevant because although the government would be made responsible for establishing annual progressive goals in terms of the amount which is processed and also creating “reception centres” (to accommodate e-waste), the way these are managed, and how they will be able to cope with a sudden flow in e-waste, has not been clarified.
One organisation that is already working in the recycling front is Escrap, which is responsible for promoting the sustainable use of electronics from production to final disposal. They collect e-waste from companies and municipalities, separate their components (glass from metals, etc) and send them to smelters. The platelets (such as motherboards and keyboards) are sent to Europe to recover raw materials so as to be reused.
The director of Escrap, Gustavo Fernández Protomastro, does not seem concerned with the current lack of infrastructure. “This (bill) is certainly going to attract local and international investment to meet the demand.”
However, he was clear about Escrap’s goals. “What we want is for the government to establish a law which will speed up recycling and not the burying of products. It is easier to send the garbage for burial than recycling but it is not sustainable,” he said. “When people bury garbage, they don’t understand that there are those who they might be hurting or killing when they do it. We cannot bury forever. In the future, a battery will be recycled, not buried.”
Unlike Rullo, Fernández Protomastro is not concerned with the amount of time the government is taking with passing the law, arguing that “in Europe this decision took almost ten years”. He believes it is more important to create a law which is simple, coherent at both local and national level and within the understanding of both consumers and producers. This is because consumers need to be aware of returning their electronics to green spots and manufactures need to be prepared to cover the costs of collecting these goods and sending them to appropriate recycling and reusing centres such as Escrap.
“But it’s all a matter of cost-effectiveness. Unless money is involved, it is hard for people to do something about it. It’s like when buying beers, for example. If I return the used bottle it is cheaper the next time I buy beer. If there was some scheme like this with electronics, it would be easier for the law to work, because voluntarily it won’t. We humans do not understand the importance of caring for the environment, but it is necessary to manage that.”
Maybe 2012 will be the year when Argentina will do just that.
To find out what locals think of the issue, click here.