Jamaica's toxic problem of e-waste
by MARLON MCADAM
Accountants have always exploited emerging technologies to help them to complete their tasks more accurately, quickly or simply: from the incised clay tablets of the Sumerian scribes, through the adding machines of the 19th century, to the calculators and computers of the 20th century.
But all of these technology developments were simple propositions in comparison to the myriad technologies that are now rapidly reshaping the world of business and accountancy.
Heading into the 21st century technology, devices have become the 'new normal' for everyday business and personal use. The information technology age might seem spotlessly clean compared to the smokestacks of the industrial economy. But there is a dirty side to the pristine devices that drive modern businesses.
Electronic waste from discarded computers, mobile phones and other electronic goods, known as e-waste, has become the fastest growing global refuse stream in recent years. The term e-waste is used to cover all items of electrical and electronic equipment that have been discarded by its owner as waste without the intent of re-use.
In 2016, 44.7 million metric tonnes of e-waste were generated, equivalent to roughly 4,500 Eiffel Towers, and this is expected to grow to 52.2 million tonnes by 2021, according to the Global E-Waste Monitor 2017 report.
In its 2015 Global E-waste Monitor report, the United Nations University (UNU) also estimated that Jamaica generated approximately 16 thousand tons of e-waste in 2014.
As Jamaica becomes an increasingly digitally connected society, the amount of e-waste generated, especially from personal computers (PCs) and mobile phones, is projected to increase significantly as these devices have become more affordable and available to ordinary Jamaicans.
Additionally, as the migration from analogue to digital TV accelerates, Jamaica will more likely generate higher levels of TV-related e-waste because citizens may take the opportunity to replace their old analogue TVs with newer digital TVs instead of buying converter set-up-boxes to receive the new digital signals.
The e-waste generated by these products contain harmful toxic chemicals such as mercury, lead, cadmium, beryllium and chemical flame retardants which can leak into the environment and cause serious health problems to people exposed to them. Therefore, effective management of e-waste is necessary to prevent these harmful chemicals and hazardous waste from entering Jamaica's environment and harming its citizens.
The reality is very little of the metals or plastics used in electronics is actually recycled and returned to be used in new products. Such neglect also results in the waste of precious metals, including gold and platinum that are used in electronic devices.
Industrial metals such as aluminium and copper are lost too; increasing greenhouse gas emissions, as mining and processing metals is more energy intensive than recycling.
The total value of raw materials in e-waste was estimated at €55bn in 2016, based on data from the United Nations University. The gold in the world's e-waste is estimated to equal as much as 11 per cent of the total amount of the metal mined each year.
Only around 20 per cent of the world's e-waste is documented to be collected and recycled.
Currently, Jamaica does not have adequate e-waste recycling infrastructure, therefore, once electrical and electronic equipment has achieved its “end of useful life” and is discarded, it is either exported to overseas refineries to continue along the e-waste value chain or disposed with other waste that often goes to landfills.
Significant amounts of waste are exported from rich nations to less developed countries in Asia and Africa, where it is sadly disposed of in a manner that is damaging to the environment and human health. The scale of the problem is huge.
In response to this issue the United Nations adopted the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal. The Basel Convention, which came into force in 1992, was designed to reduce movements of hazardous waste between nations, and specifically to prevent transfer of hazardous waste from developed to less developed countries.
The US signed but never ratified the treaty despite e-waste already accounting for an estimated 70 per cent of toxic waste in US landfills. Jamaica became party to the convention via accession in 2003. As a consequence, Jamaica must ensure that appropriate measures are in place to effectively manage hazardous wastes.
While governments in many parts of the world have been seeking to reduce this toxic trade and ensure the proper disposal of unwanted devices, only around 66 per cent of the globe is covered by national e-waste management rules.
Regulation is both broad and strict in the European Union under the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment directive. By contrast, the US federal government has passed the buck to the states, and only around half mandate recycling. In most cases the manufacturer of the device is held responsible for recycling, rather than end users.
In Latin America, Africa and much of Asia the rules governing e-waste are even weaker. But this has created the potential for companies to step into the breach by creating sustainable practices, as government regulation spreads.
One such programme is the e-Stewards initiative, a global certification programme, that was launched by the Basel Action Network to ensure that firms can trust that their old IT devices are being refurbished or disposed of in the most responsible and secure fashion and in accordance with the Basel Convention. The certification includes strict obligations to protect data as well as environmental and labour protections.
Although Jamaica has not adopted any regulation or legislation specific to e-waste, it has enacted legislation concerning the disposal of hazardous waste and the granting of permits for the disposal of waste. These include the National Solid Waste Management Act, the Natural Resources Conservation Act, the Natural Resources Conservation (Permits and Licences) Regulations, and the Natural Resources (Hazardous Waste and Control of Transboundary Movement) Regulations.
However, considering the significant growth and impact of e-waste, the time has come for the Government of Jamaica to promulgate specific e-waste legislation to effectively manage the processing and disposal of e-waste. Greater effort is also needed to increase the awareness of citizens about the need for proper disposal of e-waste and the consequences of improper disposal and its negative impact on the environment.
From 2016 to 2030, world leaders will be working together to achieve The United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The 17 SDGs aim to provide government, business and civil society with a universal roadmap to tackle urgent challenges, meaningfully engage with emerging risks and discover new opportunities for creating value. Reducing waste is number 12, and is such a pressing issue that tackling it can relate to several other SDGs.
The accountancy profession is already helping to stimulate thinking around sustainability issues. Now is the time for accountants to take a leading role in developing sustainable business models and incorporating sustainability into decision-making to ensure the war on waste is won.
We need to provide leadership and clarity on the much-needed waste management for e-waste and bring about an appetite for change.
Marlon McAdam is a chartered accountant and certified information systems auditor