People in developing countries who make a living scavenging the dumps of electronic equipment thrown away by the first world face daily hazards most of us never consider as we gaily order our new mobile, laptop or flat-screen television. Recycling our waste electrical items is a dirty job, and those who do it are among the poorest and least educated in the world.
The common practice of burning plastic cables to gain quick access to the valuable copper inside, for instance, gives off smoke that can cause chest and lung problems. Some of the chemicals released into the environment are carcinogenic. Crude break-up of electrical items can cause heavy metals such as lead and mercury to leach into the soil, and then into the water table. From here, they are taken up by plants, ingested by animals, and eventually accumulate at the top of the food chain, in humans.
Illegal to ship
Though it is now illegal under the U.N.'s Basel Convention for developed countries to ship their toxic e-waste to other countries, there's no doubt it still happens. And even when electronic equipment is certified as safe for re-use and exported legally, the thousands of manual workers who dismantle it are still unlikely to have had any training in how to safely handle it.
Educating these workers in what is a highly casual sector is the problem now being tackled by Professor Oladele Osibanjo, director of the Basel Convention Coordinating Centre For Training and Technology Transfer for the African Region. Osibanjo, based in Lagos, Nigeria, has campaigned internationally against illegal dumping: now, he says, it is imperative to educate workers in how to retrieve the valuable components they depend on for financial survival without damaging their health and that of their community and wider environment.
The difficulty lies not simply in persuading them to attend training, but in finding suitable methods of teaching technical skills to individuals who are often illiterate.
E-learning and workshops
To have any hope of making an impact, training methods must be flexible and highly accessible, and this is where e-learning materials created by U.K. company Learning Light have played a part, in combination with face-to-face workshops led by Dr. Margaret Bates from Northampton University's Centre for Sustainable Wastes Management. Approached by Osibanjo to see if she could facilitate some initial training for waste workers in Lagos, Bates had to think hard about how to adapt her university approach to teaching people with no academic background. Making graphically clear the long-term effects of poor working practices — through visual images of illnesses contracted because of pollution — is one way she tackled the problem.
“If you're going to stop people continuing with dangerous working practices you have to show them more than just a financial incentive. So the first workshop we ran was the really horrible one, about dioxins and how babies can be affected. We spent time showing participants very visually the effects of this kind of pollution.” About 150 people came along, including local associations of scavengers, dismantlers, repairers, refurbishers and retailers of used and component parts in Lagos state. Representatives of the largest informal e-waste market associations in Lagos also attended.
“The participants were advised to choose from continuing with the present methods, which can shorten their life span, and spend most of the money made from the business in paying for healthcare costs; or adopt international best practice using correct tools and personal protective equipment, and live longer and healthier lives,” says Osibanjo. “Later, the participants admitted to being enlightened that they are at risk of being hurt by e-waste.” Nothing like this had ever been on offer in Nigeria before, says Bates. Driving home the dramatic impacts on human health required her to lead the first workshop; the second session, however, used a tutorial programme already developed by e-learning design specialists Learning Light for prisoner education in the U.K.
Though Bates was present for this session, too, the idea is that in future she need not be. It's crucial to the long-term success of this initiative that workers can study under their own steam.
Delivered in discrete online units requiring no reading or writing, and designed to meet the requirements of the European Union's Weee (waste electrical and electronic equipment) Directive, Learning Light's teaching units are loaded into a computer — or accessed online where broadband services are good enough — and use strong visual and oral prompts that translate easily from a U.K. context to a Nigerian classroom.
“We've got modules for dismantling inkjet printers and computer base stations,” says Bates — but that's just the start. Learning Light is developing teaching modules for a variety of equipment types that will ultimately be remotely accessible.
The impact of combining face-to-face contact with experts from Northampton's Centre for Sustainable Wastes Management, with an e-learning course that can be carried out thousands of miles away, could make a significant impact on the safety of those working in the Nigerian dismantling industry, suggests Bates — if funding can be found to keep the course going. Getting approval and encouragement from Nigerian government officials will be vital.
In the U.K., the Learning Light course leads to a nationally recognised vocational qualification now, with the help of feedback from the initial training sessions, Bates and Osibanjo are working with Nigerian regulators to create a distance-learning programme that will lead to a formal Nigerian qualification for people who might never even have finished school. The sooner a course can be accredited, the easier it will be to attract funding that allows those who rely on our electronic waste to do so without putting their health at risk.— © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2010