Warnings over hidden risk in household rubbish

Common household waste - mobile phones, batteries and light bulbs - should be considered hazardous, experts say.

Dubai , United Arab Emirates-  May  26, 2011: ENPARK & IDAMA staff seen working at the  bulb recycling machine that is used to extract elements from lightbulbs for recycling at the Knowledge Village  in Dubai . ( Satish Kumar / The National )
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DUBAI // Those dead batteries, light bulbs, old paint cans and electronic gadgets you throw in the rubbish skip are doing more environmental damage than you might imagine, waste management companies say.

When sent straight to the landfill such items ooze toxic chemicals and vapours, and can contaminate groundwater and ignite dangerous underground fires.

The companies are calling on governments in the UAE to promote safe disposal of hazardous household goods to stop pollution of the air, soil and water.

Experts say that with the lack of facilities to treat most types of hazardous household waste and no laws demanding its proper disposal, the UAE faces significant risks.

Frederic Vigier, the chief executive of the Dubai waste management company Trashco, gives the example of fluorescent and neon lights, which contain mercury, a pollutant dangerous to humans and the environment.

"Inside neon lights you have a gas made of mercury," said Mr Vigier. "Whenever you break them, the vapour is released."

Those vapours can threaten the health of landfill workers or fall into the waterways after rain. Even small amounts of mercury can have a large impact, polluting rivers and fish, and entering the human food chain.

"As per the legislation, these are not considered hazardous waste," said Mr Vigier.

The same is the case with electric batteries, which are among the most dangerous household wastes, he said. "A small lithium battery can pollute a cubic metre of soil."

Karine Mills, 36, a personal development coach in Dubai, keeps all of her used batteries.

"I keep them all in a box at home," Ms Mills said. "I cannot bear the idea of putting them in a normal bin. This is something that horrifies me."

Municipal authorities in other countries are much further ahead on the issue, organising drop-off days for batteries and other hazardous waste.

UAE residents are urged to set aside a place in their homes where such items are kept until the opportunity arises to dispose of them safely.

"Whenever possible, use rechargeable batteries," said Jeremy Byatt, the vice president of environment at the Sharjah recycling and waste management company Bee'ah. "That makes a huge difference in rubbish production."

Most UAE landfills lack the plastic lining that stops substances leaking into the ground. This means the pollution can eventually find its way to groundwater, spreading further, said Mr Byatt.

Air pockets can also form, causing hazardous materials to ignite. Although the risk is less if the waste is compacted, it can lead to dangerous underground fires, he said.

"Hazardous waste can be landfilled safely for a short period of time," Mr Byatt said. "It is very much a question of time."

The UAE has been focusing on larger hazardous waste issues, which has made domestic waste a lower priority, he said.

"In terms of volume, construction and demolition waste is between 60 to 70 per cent of all waste in the UAE," Mr Byatt said.

But some change is happening. In Dubai's Knowledge Village, the facility management company Idama is collecting used light bulbs, which are crushed and stored at a Dubai Municipality site.

The programme, which runs in conjunction with the energy and environment free zone Enpark and the Emirates Wildlife Society, has collected about 42,300 used bulbs, tubes and lamps since it launched in June last year.

Also in Dubai, EnviroServe, an electronics waste recycler, is each month collecting up to 500 items such as mobile phones, chargers and TV remote controls from points at several large private companies, including Microsoft in Dubai Internet City and Masdar in Abu Dhabi.

Consumers can also drop off unwanted electronics at collection points in Dubai Festival City and at the Etihad Airways headquarters in Abu Dhabi.

EnviroServe wants to expand its services but first needs a commitment from the government, said Zornica Hadjitodorova, the company's manager for electronic waste.

"With increased public sector support we would be able to secure higher volumes and divert more waste from landfill," Ms Hadjitodorova said.

Mr Vigier agreed laws were needed to recognise more types of hazardous waste and tackle the question of who pays for its safe disposal.

"To be environmentally friendly, it costs money," he said.