In 2019, the global amount of electronic waste was almost 54 million tonnes. This was found by the UN and it is a record number.
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This kind is the world’s fastest growing waste. Therefore, many countries have been urgently dealing with environmental issues in the past few years and taking relevant measures. However, the legislation of Kyrgyzstan has no definition of “electronic and electric waste”. The procedure of disposal of hazardous equipment is not outlined anywhere, so it is disposed of at a landfill site, where it pollutes air and people.
Just three years ago, independent ecologists initiated a round table discussion on the above topic and invited parliamentarians there. Deputies admitted that the issue should be settled promptly. They promised to analyse global experience, to instruct agencies to explore this issue and even to calculate the economic profit. However, no norms have been developed so far.
At the time, municipal enterprise Tazalyk is a monopoly provider of household solid waste collection and disposal services in Bishkek. The city has only one authorised landfill site, all others have exceeded their estimated capacity long ago, they do not comply with health rules and environmental safety requirements.
The head of Tazalyk, Ryspek Sarpashev, talking to CABAR.asia said that people throw away used equipment into waste containers – it is found every day when removing the waste.
About three years ago, segregated waste containers were installed at Dzhal residential district. The official recalls this experience in terror.
“It was a real hellhole and a mayhem. We created a big problem for ourselves – crowds of homeless people used to fight with each other every day as they could not share the wastes. Therefore, we had to solve this problem with them first. And then we should have raised public awareness. Even if it takes a year, we need to hold awareness raising campaigns and tell about the proper disposal of various kinds of wastes,” Sarpashev said.
Hazardous lamps and oncology
Aleksey Kravtsov, an epidemiologist of the Republican Research Centre for Infection Control of the Preventive Medicine research and production association, suggested looking at this problem from another view.
The number of oncology cases is growing fast, especially in the suburbs and villages, where the climate and ecology seem to be favourable at first sight.
Kravtsov said that all medical facilities use thermometers, fluorescent and ultraviolet lamps that contain mercury. They are very hazardous as mercury is a metal that does not degrade. Even if it evaporates, it will deposit as it is somewhere else.
“The modern world has refused to produce mercury as its stock is sufficient and it should rather be treated and recycled. As we know, it is contained in many radioelectronic devices,” the specialist said.
Where computers die?
A discarded personal computer or a copying machine is a tricky equipment. They cannot be totally disposed of. Such devices contain aluminium, copper, iron, plastic and radioactive elements that contain precious metals.
Personal computers and laptops are often disassembled in Bishkek. Computer repair technician Dmitry Arzhany said motherboard is one of the precious components in a discarded computer.
“People buy and melt them and extract gold, which they sell to jewellers as scrap gold. Now individuals melt such things,” he said.
According to international experts, a tonne of radioactive elements can contain up to 40 grams of gold, platinum or silver. This is a lot. However, this fact does not make the state or individuals start waste treatment.
Nevertheless, even if we extract all useful elements, the high-melting plastic, whose treatment is a long and expensive process, remains. As a result, cases of PCs and laptops fill the dumpsite.
Kyrgyzstan still has no culture of discarding batteries at drop-off stations. Only one AA battery can contaminate 20 square metres of land or 400 litres of water with heavy metals. A man will not see the destructive impact at once as heavy metals start their destructive work only when they reach a certain concentration rate. Thus, cadmium destroys kidneys, liver, pancreas, blocks the functions of vital enzymes.
For example, five Ni-Cad batteries of mobile phones can contaminate about 50 thousand litres of water, while a TV set discarded into a landfill can contaminate 80 thousand litres of water.
The environmental specialist Zhyldyz Uzakbaeva reminded that as long as the equipment is used, it does not pose any threat to health of people and to the environment. Once it gets into a landfill, weather factors do their job and release hazardous chemical elements, which we inhale with the contaminated air.
“Waste ignites and smolders in the landfill, which greatly increases its toxicity. Among other things, methane is released, which is 25 times more destructive to the ozone layer than carbon dioxide,” the expert said.
So, the environmental damage from electronic waste is 90 per cent more than from domestic waste.
One cannot conquer alone
Only one company, Ecocomplex, in a million-plus Bishkek has a license for the disposal of hazardous wastes. It has a pyrolysis chamber, which does not release toxins or poisonous substances during combustion.
Director of the company Nurlan Dzhumaliev said it can dispose of 600 items of hazardous wastes. For example, medical and carbon-containing waste, plastic materials, used accumulators, electric equipment and office equipment.
One can apply once to Ecocomplex or enter into an agreement on behalf of one’s organisation. They will take one’s waste for a fee. Also, one can bring batteries, lamps, used tires, sewing waste there.
“A fee is charged because we pay taxes. We also accept batteries, but for storage only so far as we do not have a battery recycling plant here, and the closest one is located in Russia. Maybe in the near future we will recycle them by ourselves,” Dzhumaliev said hopefully.
Poison at hand
No one is officially involved in waste sorting in Bishkek. Partial sorting starts with waste containers near residential houses: plastic materials, cardboard and glass are collected first by homeless, then collection workers, and then people seeking recyclable materials in landfills. Where do they discard such materials?
In 2017, representatives of Taza Tabigat found Chinese artisan enterprises that recycled ferrous scrap in the territory of Chui region. According to their research, wet chemicals from recycled electronic equipment were spilled to the ground and local residents complained about deterioration of their health.
After the environmental inspection, it was found that oxides of carbon, nitrogen and manganese, welding aerosol, hydrogen fluoride are released at these enterprises. It causes skin itching, cough, asphyxia and watery eye in people.
When members of the inspection visited these enterprises, they reported violations of safety procedures for workers.
“Workers are mainly residents of nearby villages. They work with molten metal, inhale harmful fumes for 700 som per month. Moreover, they do not have boots to protect their bare feet, have no respiration devices. They do not pay any contributions to the Social Fund,” according to the research “Preliminary and brief evaluation of electronic waste for Central Asia with a focus on Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan”.
In December 2015, consultants of one of the projects of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development found out that over five hundred “informal collectors” of waste work at the Bishkek landfill. All of them live below the poverty line.
“328 men and 184 women sort the waste. Among them are children and pensioners,” according to the research.
In 2017, Independent Environmental Study with the support of the European Union held a research on disposal of electronic waste. Back then, 30 households of Bishkek had 43 refrigerators, 11 air conditioners, 37 washing machines, 32 electric or gas stoves. Almost every household had a TV set, flat iron, electric kettle, microwave oven, vacuum cleaner, lamps, cables and power strips, a laptop or a personal computer. And every family had 1 to 6 mobile phones. Almost all respondents knew about hazards of electronic waste and almost all of them disposed of equipment together with other wastes. Importantly, the respondents said they would discard their electronic waste free of charge if there were a company to take it.
Also, 17 state, commercial and private organisations were interviewed. 97 per cent of employees had a personal computer/laptop. They all have copying machines, scanners, printers, air conditioners and even refrigerators, TV sets and video projectors.
Also, respondents were asked what obstacles for recycling they knew, and they said these were the lack of infrastructure and relevant laws.
A decision no one needs
A few years ago, international donors launched a project in Bishkek, where the specialists of Kyrgyzstan developed a mechanism of disposal of mercury-containing electronic waste from medical facilities. They constructed a storage on the base of family medicine centre, where they stored fluorescent lamps safely and then transported them to Kadamzhai Integrated Works. They were disposed of there. According to epidemiologist Aleksey Kravtsov, analysts calculated the profitability of this enterprise. However, their recommendations were ignored.
“We met with many waste recyclers. As we understood from our dialogue, the state does not support them at all. And they cannot work alone as it is unprofitable – the market is small and the market volume is small. They cannot do without the state support,” Kravtsov said.
The environment expert Zhyldyz Uzakbaeva also urges: Kyrgyzstan needs to adopt a law “On expanded responsibility of the manufacturer” according to the norms of the European Union countries. She meant that the manufacturer or importer should be bound to pay a tax for environmental pollution.
“As a matter of fact, this is a “disposal” tax just like in Russia, Belarus and Europe. This money will be enough to maintain an enterprise that will recycle electronic waste,” the specialist said.
It would lead to a minor increase in production costs, but the country would not have hazardous waste.
However, the government and deputies are in no hurry to save environment in their country. The volume of medical waste has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. Tonnes of masks and gas protective equipment, which is nothing but polyethylene, added to wastes in the overfilled landfills. And polyethylene is known to degrade for nearly one thousand years. Or never…
This article was prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project implemented with the financial support of the Foreign Ministry of Norway.