E-waste – The big issue facing small islands

Once famed for their idyllic beaches, the islands of the Pacific are under increasing threat from waste and pollution. Rubbish now clogs once-pristine streams, and trash floats through previously untouched mangrove forests.

It’s a heartbreaking sight, and while plastic and household waste isn’t a new problem, there’s another one that is e-waste. With the Pacific Islands typically lagging in the technical revolution of the last two decades, the issue of e-waste has only reached the agenda of waste management agencies in the last five years or so. A rising volume of waste is being discarded, with electronic appliances such as TVs, computers, mobile phones, electronic toys and air conditioners contributing to mountains of Pacific Island waste.

And it’s a battle they’re not adequately prepared for. Unfortunately, many Pacific Island countries still have limited technical, financial and safety resources to properly address the issue, which only makes this growing problem more challenging. Communities generally lack an understanding of the impact that burying, burning or dumping e-waste is having. And in island nations where land is scarce and water sources are vulnerable, adequate means of disposal is critical.

That’s because Pacific communities face long-term health risks from e-waste through exposure to hazardous substances that remain in the soil, water and air. Those that are most vulnerable to its impact are the urban poor – more specifically, women and children, as exposure to materials such as lead can interfere with the normal physical and mental development of babies and young children.

Currently, most e-waste in Fiji is landfilled or burned. In Samoa, while attempts at collecting e-waste had been made by a private recycling operation, much of it sits exposed and untouched. It seems the vast majority of it continues to be sent to landfill. Both nations currently have no official collection points or formal policies, and it’s clear that funding and collection infrastructure remain significant obstacles to overcome before any action can be taken.

On the flip side, there are positive signs that Fijian commercial enterprises are willing to participate in e-waste recycling if a clear government policy framework is developed. Moves to make the cost of recycling included in the purchase price of items would be a positive step, and as data trends demonstrate an upward climb when it comes to the purchasing of electronics, a necessary focus needs to start with community education.

Elsewhere, we’re seeing that positive changes can be made. In the Cook Islands, e-waste, whiteware, steel cans, scrap steel, and nonferrous metals, used lead acid and lithium batteries, and solar panels are stockpiled and exported for recycling and recovery purposes by a private operator. In Kiribati, the PacWaste (2014-17) Programme put in place by the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme as a means for improving the management of e-waste, has seen an e-waste pilot project for the safe dismantling of e-waste, shipping and logistical support, a community awareness campaign, and assistance in developing a national e-waste strategy put in place.

While community awareness about the impacts of e-waste remains low in Pacific nations, steps are being taken to change that. An e-waste guide was launched to help Pacific media, with the hope that it will encourage more information to be shared. The publication covers a range of key areas that are impacted by climate change, including: What is E-waste? Legal implications of E-waste; Social implications of E-waste; Economic implications of E-waste; Health implications of E-waste; Environment implications of E-waste; and a case study on the first Cook Islands E-waste day.

Still, there is more work to be done. Conversations must continue to generate broader community awareness, which in turn should assist in driving government policy-making and infrastructure provision. These changes are critical, not just for the preservation of the ecological beauty of these island nations, but more importantly for the well-being of their inhabitants.

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