We love our gadgets, but there’s a price to pay for this and it’s our environment that’s footing the bill. As the number of dumps of digital devices in Oman has rocketed, Team Y investigates why the need to tackle e-waste can no longer be ignored.
Standing tall over the horizon are the Sultanate’s mountains. Waiting to be explored and captured on smartphones for the world to see –there’s no denying that technology has shrunk the world, and etched Oman on its digital map.
But, head to the mountains before the landscape changes, for the basis of our new-age existence – technology – is slowly transforming the country’s backdrops. Soon we’ll be trekking over mountains of electronic waste – or e-waste – to get around.
It’s a concept relatively unheard of in Oman yet it’s one that has been brought along by the notion of disposable technology.
Everything from our smartphones to our computers that we shell out big bucks for has an expiry date – one that’s set by our changing mindsets and the ever-increasing reliance on skilled machinery to get us through our daily routines.
While that augurs well for the developing nation that Oman is, it also means more people are running through gadgets more than ever before – even if some of these gadgets can cost more than the average person’s salary.
Yet, people are buying these gadgets, and the dumps of Oman are where they all end up, which we see so clearly as we head to the landfill in Al Amerat for a quick look to see how it all stacks up… in this case, quite literally.
The remnants of the past pepper the landscape with what can only be described as a grim coating of lead, cadmium, and plastics that make up microchips, batteries, and any other component of a phone, laptop, refrigerator, air conditioner, television, and the like.
This also forms the basis of Oman’s e-waste problem. But to understand what it means, we speak to Khalid al Zadjali, a member of the Muscat Municipality and an advocate for recycling e-waste.
He says: “It’s quite hard to describe what e-waste is but it’s easy to identify it. It is the electrical and electronic devices that are dumped by us after our use.
“But, e-waste is not just what ends up in the landfills. It also includes the devices that are discarded and are sent off for recycling, reuse or even reselling. So, no matter what you do, if you’re going to throw away your device, you’re contributing to e-waste.
“Oman’s problems, however, don’t pertain to this alone. Our issue is more acute: it’s that the waste is either sent to the landfills or is exported out of the country to other countries – even though this is not a legal procedure.”
He declines to comment further on the latter but tells us that Oman’s e-waste problem has grown to nearly five times its size since the early 2013s.
He’s right. It’s a shocking statistic that begins to take shape as we learn from the Omani Environmental Services Holding Company (be’ah) how the Sultanate has witnessed a 146 per cent growth in e-waste.
But these numbers are conservative too, says one source at the be’ah that prefers to remain anonymous.
In fact, based on his fact sheet, be’ah – who classifies e-waste as Waste of Electronic and Electrical Equipment (WEEE) – has recorded, in just six years, an increase of e-waste from 54,148 tonnes to 133,304 tonnes in 2018.
As per details compiled and published in 2015 by WEEE, nearly 18.33k tonnes were refrigerators, followed by washing machines at 11.47k tonnes, 16.58k tonnes of televisions, 16.35k tonnes of air conditioners, 6.82k tonnes of personal computers and 0.9 tonnes of mobile phones.
Our source says: “These numbers are increasing by the second. Every time a dump truck comes in we’re adding to this number.
“Oman’s problem with e-waste isn’t nearly as bad as what we see in countries such as the US, India, and China but those are larger countries in comparison, and when you take a national average, you realise that countries such as Oman and the UAE have relatively high disposal rates due to our over-reliance on technology, which in turn results in a lot of waste.”
He then explains how this year will exceed everyone’s expectations and become the “worst year in the history of electronic waste” in Oman.
“The trends are looking bad for 2019 as well. Why is this happening? But, the answer to all our questions is in the mirror – just look into it and ask yourself that,” he says.
We don’t stop there and continue to probe why there is such a sharp increase in e-waste in Oman.
And our search leads us to Marcus Smith, an environmental impact management officer working with one of the leading eco-conservation and risk management companies in the Sultanate.
His take on e-waste is purely an observation of this problem over the past two decades.
He says: “Oman never had an e-waste problem until 2010 or 2011. And before that, it was just smaller items such as televisions, printers, and pagers that ended up in the dumps.
“A lot has changed since then. Back in the late 1990s, I remember how we would run campaigns in newspapers asking people to dump their equipment if it has been damaged, so that we could proceed to recycle or safely dispose them off.
“People used to milk every bit of life out of an IBM computer or printer before they decided to get rid of it.
“Things started changing by about 2010, when I remember the smartphone phenomenon began. So, this was solely spearheaded by the youth of the world; Oman’s included.
“The purchasing power, though low at the time, quickly changed as priorities changed. So, you then had people putting aside [financially] more important tasks and queuing up outside stores to buy or pre-book a phone.
“These people started a smartphone revolution here in Oman. But, this was harmless too – up to an extent. It was what happened next that changed this part of the world: the emergence of cheap gadgets.
“So, phones that were costing RO200 to RO300 then now only cost a fraction of the same, and they have far more features.”
A quick check on the prices reveals that the average cost of a smartphone – which is increasing every quarter – is still relatively lower than what it used to be ten years ago.
For instance, budget Chinese phones with specifications to match the top-dog models such as Samsung’s Galaxy S9 and Apple’s iPhone X, can cost anywhere between RO120 and RO150, when compared with the originals, which will set you back upwards of RO240.
This, says Marcus, is just the tip of an ever-increasing global iceberg.
“Soon, just like plastic islands floating about the ocean, we’ll see e-waste islands too. We’re really in an era where electronics are no longer mere pieces of telemetry, they’re also our form of entertainment, navigation, gaming; and so much more.
“So, when one of those aspects is updated, the general tendency is to upgrade to a newer piece of tech – be it computers, phones, printers and now, even car parts.
That, for some people is irrespective of money, says Marcus.
This behaviour, however, is now being deemed erratic by experts such as Marcus and Khalid, who lobby the government both to bring change and to potentially educate the masses of the dangers of e-waste.
According to Khalid, it’s hard to create a change of mindset as even the people involved in changing habits are so reliant on modern technology that it is “obstructing” their decisions.
He then reveals: “We’ve been in talks with several members from various councils on creating a cap on the number of smartphones or televisions one can buy in a year, but to no avail.
“Today, we see people upgrading their gadgets every month, and they are the real problem makers and not someone who is doing the same, say, every two or three years.
“This can cause an unnecessary imbalance in the ratio of discarded goods to purchased goods, and we just don’t have the resources to balance that out,” he adds.
In a completely different turn of events, Khalid then shows us the palms of his hands, and points at what appears to be a discoloration caused by a chemical burn, saying: “This is what a battery can do to you.”
Khalid reveals that the burn was caused when an exploding battery spewed burning lithium onto his hands.
His point raises some very important questions too – mostly those pertaining to the safe disposal of chemical compounds found in gadgets such as smartphones, refrigerators, air conditioners, laptops, and the like.
Oman’s current laws don’t dictate the removal of batteries, heavy metals, and other fluids from components before disposal, thereby causing several to slowly leak metals and chemicals into the soil and gases into the air.
A quick research reveals that these elements are considered special waste in countries such as the USA and UK, where they are stripped from their components, their chemicals neutralised and then carefully transported for recycling.
As per activesustainability.com, a website dedicating itself to sustainable development and practices, batteries have become safer over the past decade or so but still remain hazardous to the environment, humans and animal life.
It reads: “Almost 30 per cent of the weight of batteries is down to toxic materials such as Mercury, Cadmium, Nickel, Magnesium, Lithium and Zinc. Most of these elements are polluting, mainly if they come into contact with soil or water and dilute into reservoirs or rivers.”
However, aside from the water pollution, experts state that the hydrocarbons released by the wires can pollute the atmosphere, while other heavy metals such as lead can mix with the soil to enter the food chain as they are absorbed by plants thereby contributing to all three; air, water, and soil pollutions.
The government of Oman now recognises this, as the be’ah official reveals.
It’s also the right time to set the ball in motion as statistics reveal that nearly 196,254 tonnes of e-waste will be generated in Oman by the end of next year (2020).
In response to this, be’ah is now establishing a new recycling facility in the governorate of North Batinah.
No details of the expected date of completion or its capacity have been revealed as yet, except that the facility can recycle up to 10,000 tonnes of e-waste per annum. We’re told that this will work in conjunction with the existing e-waste recycling plant – Oman’s first – in the same region.
However, it’s a far cry from what’s already in the dumps currently. In fact, the Sultanate generated 110,810 tonnes of e-waste in 2017 alone.
Not only will this reduce the issue of accumulating e-waste for long periods of time but it will also curb the illegal exporting of e-waste to other countries, says one other Municipality official who wishes to remain anonymous.
He says: “We are all aware that there are people within the framework that are collecting – and I don’t want to say from where or how – these electronics and selling them to exporters who will then take them to countries such as Bangladesh, Pakistan, Ghana, and Nigeria.”
Our source reveals that each consignment can earn the seller anywhere between RO2,000 and RO6,500 after shipping depending on the load and quality of microchips.
Not only does this break international trade laws, it is also a direct violation of the municipality’s code to keep all disposing and recycling within the country. Any individual conducting such activities are also required to obtain a no-objection certificate from be’ah.
As per the law, the restricted list of items includes lead acid batteries, microchips, scrap metals, and even fire retardant materials (commonly found in electronics).
“Personal benefit is what drives these people to do this. And we’re a bit concerned where they’re able to procure such amounts of waste from. While this does greatly reduce the nation’s waste, it does hamper SMEs that rely on recycling these items.
“So, what’s benefiting one is probably causing the downfall of several others – and not just of people in Oman. For instance, the e-waste will require stripping and other processes, and we’ve learnt that a lot of them involved in the processes are actually children and underpaid workers.
“We [Omanis] don’t want to be a part of this. And it’s not what we want to see happen to anyone. Our waste is our problem – and we’ll need to take care of it.”
Khalid is apprehensive about the rate of the accumulation of e-waste.
“While the transporting of waste outside the country isn’t what we want to do to solve the crisis, keeping it in the country isn’t an option either.
“We are now awaiting the opening of a facility to take care of the excess that is coming into our dump yards daily – and even that can only address a part of the problem.
“It’s funny how our reliance on technology is leading to our downfall. When something we rely on greatly let us down, what do we do (?) – I guess the answer is simple: you let the humans take care of it.”
• Sell old electronics: If you are planning on selling, you should be able to easily find a buyer as they will have the opportunity to purchase the same product at a much lower price than if it were new. You get easy money while the buyer gets a nice gadget; a win-win for both parties.
• Donate old electronics: Donating electronics to the needy is also a practice followed by many. It not only gives the gadget a new life but also makes you feel good about yourself.
• Recycle and dispose of E-Waste properly: Improperly disposed e-waste is becoming more and more hazardous, especially as the sheer volume of our e-waste increases.
• Maintain your electronics: One of the best ways to save your money and reduce e-waste is to keep your electronics well-maintained, to increase their life.
• Repurpose or Re-evaluate: Always think twice before upgrading or buying a new electronic device:
– Do you really need this new device?
– Is it a need, or more of a want?
– Will it add value to your personal or professional life in any way?
• Store data online Cloud services are much better than you would think in reducing your environmental impact.