The dangers of e-waste disposal in Lebanon

Part of a global crisis

Pictures courtesy of EcoServ
Reading Time: 3 minutes

Electronics are becoming more disposable. Indeed, built-in obsolescence, high cost of repair, as well as leaps in technology have shortened their lifespan. The Global E-waste Monitor 2017, a study on electronic waste (e-waste) undertaken through a collaboration of the United Nations University, the International Telecommunication Union, and the International Solid Waste Association, found that in 2016 there were 44.7 million metric tonnes (Mt) of e-waste globally—the equivalent to 4,500 Eiffel towers worth. By 2021 it predicted there would be 52.2 million Mt of e-waste globally. The shortened lifespan of electronics has brought about a whole new environmental crisis.        

Unknown fates            

E-waste can be categorized into six groups, according to the study: cooling and freezing equipment, such as freezers or air conditioners; screens/monitors, such as TVs and laptops; lamps, such as fluorescent or LED lamps; large equipment, such as washing machines or electric stoves; and small equipment, such as vacuums and calculators. Each product has potential environmental and health impacts if recycled improperly. Unfortunately, that is more often the case than not. Based on the study’s findings, only 20 percent of global e-waste is even recycled, and data on how e-waste is disposed of is lacking. “The fate of a large majority of the e-waste (34.1 Mt) is simply unknown. In countries where there is no national e-waste legislation in place, e-waste is likely treated as other or general waste. This is either land-filled or recycled, along with other metal or plastic wastes,” the study reads. “There is the high risk that the pollutants are not taken care of properly, or they are taken care of by an informal sector and recycled without properly protecting the workers, while emitting the toxins contained in e-waste.”

This is reflected here in Lebanon, one of the 34 percent of countries that have no legislation to tackle e-waste. The 2015 garbage crisis—which was never actually resolved and looks set to return—gave rise to more informal recycling efforts in the country, but these are not monitored. The informal processing and improper recycling of e-waste can lead to toxic chemicals and heavy metals leaking into the soils in landfills and other “unofficial” dumping grounds, and the accompanying disintegration will generate ground water, surface water, and air pollution.  

Health impacts

When e-waste is discarded into landfills or incinerated, it has disastrous effects on its surroundings. Scavenging for materials on the electronic board level releases highly dangerous toxins that directly impact human health. Modern electronics can contain up to 60 different elements; many are valuable, some are hazardous, and some are both. The most complex mix of substances is usually present in the printed wiring boards (PWBs). Unfortunately, PWBs are the main target of local recyclers, due to their high concentration of heavy metals. However, to extract these requires highly sophisticated chemical and controlled heat processes that are not available in Lebanon. So those who attempt to do so use methods that release all sorts of poisonous toxins in the air, soil, and water. 

Most developing countries lack a standardized framework for treating e-waste as well as the environmental awareness of how to treat it. In Lebanon, solid waste companies are neither mandated, nor do they have the capability to properly dispose of e-waste, which often ends up crushed at scrap facilities with no environmental safety measures. In order to raise awareness of the dangers of e-waste disposal, our non-profit organization, ECOSERV, was established in January 2018. Our aim is to lead by example on how to safely dispose of and recycle e-waste. 

To that end we are working on an initiative to change e-waste disposal habits in Lebanese communities through increased social awareness at universities, schools, and municipalities. On the individual level, we have set up over 50 drop zones across Lebanon where people can bring their e-waste to ensure it will be properly disposed of, and recycled where possible.

ECOSERV aims to create a sustainable social impact on the national level. Proper processing of e-waste is essential to ensure that toxic materials are not released into the environment. We need collective action from all stakeholders—municipalities, private and public institutions, universities and schools, and households—in dealing with the e-waste challenge. 

Gaby Kassab

Gaby Kassab, president of ECOSERV, has a long-standing career in telecommunications and IT and has experienced first hand the challenge of e-waste treatment.