Tunis, TAP – Every year, Tunisians go through around 70 million small batteries like those used in operating cameras or remote control equipment.
Once these batteries — estimated to weigh 2600 tonnes — are used up, they are disposed of in random garbage bins, waste disposal areas belonging to the municipalities or thrown away. Their poisonous heavy metal content is a hazard to the oceans and living beings in the environment.
Tunisian supervising authorities do not seem inclined to taking any preventative measures to protect the environment and human lives by diminishing the dangers of such garbage in random waste disposal areas, which could cause diseases.
An investigation of this unseen threat
Ashour Arjoun is a fifty-year-old sanitation worker employed by the municipality of Aryana since 1987. He became blind in one eye as a result of “being exposed to a harmful substance that was thrown away in a public bin”. The municipality physician believes it to be battery acid.
He says “I never expected such a thing to happen; I lost my sight in one eye, but thankfully I am not totally blind.”
In Tunis, only 3% of solid household waste is sorted at the source. Tunisian families throw away their refuse without placing it in plastic bags most of the time and sanitation workers work on separating it with bare hands.
These workers are estimated to be 30% of the municipal employees in Tunis, 5000 of whom work on a part-time basis or on contract in deteriorating conditions. They are not protected from environmental dangers.
Used Batteries, the least of the concerns of authorities and citizens
This investigative reporter arrived at a conclusion that both citizens and the authorities do not heed the importance of proper disposal of used batteries and the negative and dangerous effects that may arise from improper disposal. This is not given importance to this day, despite there being a Tunisian law that forbids the throwing away of used batteries and the existence of legislation that stipulates an organized method of disposal and punishment for those who do not adhere to these regulations. However, these regulations rarely are they taken to task.
The National Agency for the Protection of the Environment which has been charged with carrying out this law to protect human lives and the oceans from all dangers has informed this reporter that used battery disposal is no longer under its jurisdiction but is within the confines of the National Agency for Waste Disposal.
The Waste Disposal Agency does have a used battery department, as plans were drawn up for the disposal of such waste in 2005. The department was established in 2010 but its functions remain ink on paper.
A battery-recycling project was also expected to be established prior to the January 14, 2011 revolution. However, it has been deemed a failure prior to initiation due to the large number of tradesmen who do not recognize the graveness of environment protection nor do they pay attention to the battery collection process for recycling.
How are the used batteries collected?
A lady entered a shop in one of the upper class districts in Al Manar area in the capital hoping to change the battery in her camera. After making sure it was working again, she was about to leave when the shop owner said: “take your used battery with you, my store is filled with such batteries and I am not a public disposal site.”
Next to his seat in his tiny store were a number of containers, all filled with various used batteries (triple AAA and button batteries)
Where can we dispose of these used batteries? In special waste disposal bins? However such bins do not exist and there are no places where they can be treated. The only location that was authorized to deal with used batteries has been closed since the revolution.
In addition, no awareness campaigns have been carried out to educate the citizens on the importance of gathering used batteries and disposing of them safely; the only previous campaign was back in 2007, the start of a recycling project that never saw the light of day. The campaign itself lasted three months, during which 350 tonnes of used batteries were collected by students and are still stored in the city’s biggest waste storage site “Ecolaf” in the Montpelier district of Tunis the capital.
In the same year, 2007 a prototype for a household waste sorting system was initiated in Alkhadra district in the capital and three different bins were placed so that citizens would be able to sort out their rubbish according to type (a green bin for bio-degradable products, a yellow bin for plastic and glass containers and a red bin for dangerous waste such as batteries).
Citizens in large numbers took part in the campaign, which according to one of the municipal employees did not last long. He sarcastically adds: “the people would sort out the garbage and place it in the appropriate containers. However, when the refuse trucks came by for collection, they emptied all the containers together and took it all to dump it in the central waste site!
One battery contains 5.08 mg of mercury, a very high content level!
Batteries contain heavy and poisonous metals such as Nickel, Calcium, Aluminium, Magnesium, Lithium and especially Mercury, thus making them one of the most dangerous elements of household waste.
According to the United Nations Program for the Environment, developing countries face several health and environmental hazards as a result of mercury exposure. This heavy metal can cause nervous and behavioural disorders and is a threat to water and soil.
Suffice it to mention that the mercury content of one small button battery, as the one used in a wristwatch, can pollute one cubic metre of soil and 1000 cubic metres of water for a period of 50 years. Water pollution will in turn lead to the fish consumed by humans being contaminated with mercury as well as the vegetable products and fruit trees.
In April 2014, a date that was assigned by the Tunisian authorities as being “Pollution Prevention” month, we carried out the analysis of used batteries that were thrown away randomly or in nature. The tests, which we carried out at the International Centre for Environmental Technology, showed that the Chinese made batteries contained 5.08 mg of Mercury, 3.4 mg of Cadmium, 11.2 mg of Nickel and 48.8 mg of lead.
These are very high contents and exceed all the approved levels that are agreed upon by Tunisian standards, which prohibit the sale of batteries that contain more than 0.0005 mg of Mercury, according to Boubaker Houman, professor and expert in environmental geology.
Mohammad Zarouq, director of the Consumer Protection Agency disapproved of such levels and said that Mercury posed a grave danger to human health and to the environment at large.
We also took water and soil samples for analysis in tandem with the battery samples. Results showed that the water had Mercury deposits, which was taken from areas near the largest waste dump in Tunis in Burj Shakeer district, about 20 km from the capital. The danger lies in the fact that the water tanks at this dump are not covered and do not adhere to any safety regulations that could protect human lives and the environment. It is only 5 metres away from a residential area.
According to a waste disposal plan for batteries that was carried out at the National Agency for Waste Disposal in 2005, 95% of the Mercury found in household dumpsites came from used batteries.
Additional household and hazardous waste end in the same manner
How can used batteries be dealt with in Tunis? What will be the end result of the stored amounts? For now, no one can answer these questions. While awaiting any possible plan, this waste cannot be burnt as that would be immensely dangerous on human lives since the smoke emitting from the burning would include poisonous gases.
According to dermatologist Dr. Eman Al Hanshi, the burning of such waste “could lead to severe skin conditions as well as burns. Smoke inhalation would harm the lungs and respiratory system.” It could lead to further complications such as mouth and throat inflammation, which in turn might cause vertigo and vomiting as well as blood disorders, stomach pain and diarrhoea. And immediate contact with the eyes could also lead to blindness, the same thing that happened to Ashour.
The Law, simply ink on paper!
Why does Tunisia lack a used battery collection strategy such as those implemented in European countries? In France for example the law stipulates, in accordance with the May 12, 1999 act, that all used batteries be returned to collection points. The same law applies in Tunisia, but in theory, not in practice.
In Tunisia, the law, since 1999 stipulates that dangerous waste, including used batteries, needs to be treated in specialized centres, given authority by the government agencies. Legislature also spells out the path that hazardous waste takes from conception to disposal.
Laila Brati, official in charge of awareness and communications at the National Agency for Waste Disposal, says: “the environmental situation in general was much better prior to the revolution in the country.” She adds that today, people need to be made aware and educated in order to participate in taking care of the environment.
As to the issue of used batteries, Amal Qainoubi says that the main issue is the absence of recycling and collection processes as well as the treatment of such waste. “This is what brought things to a halt at the Waste Disposal Agency.”
The recycling project that was supposed to be carried out in cooperation with “Suitable” company — the sole licensed battery recycling company and producer in Tunisia, did not work out. The official said that the company put forward a proposal that was equivalent to those carried out in Europe and the Agency was unable to put forth the financial means necessary for such a project.
The Agency, however, is ready to deal with “any party willing to invest in a similar project which would help it as Waste Disposal is concerned with the amount of used batteries that are stored, which could eventually pose a real problem if a solution is not found.”
The solution is there but a lack in coordination exists
At the “Suitable” factory, which is located 60 km from the capital there is a fully prepared unit ready to recycle used batteries.
According to the general manager, Peter Besmeth, the parallel trade and black markets for low-grade batteries have forced the factory to turn to export and killed the recycling project that they had planned to carry out prior to the revolution.
The factory owner says: “if the country put an end to the parallel trade we are ready to open a recycling unit because we believe in this project and in the positive results it would have on the environment as well as human lives.”
According to Mr. Besmeth, “a project such as this would create 40 to 60 new jobs.”
Consumer Protection Agency: “The Tunisian consumer has never been in more danger than now”
When we met with Mohammad Zarouq, he asked us to review the current government records, which permit the passing through of all low-grade products coming from East Asia into Tunisian, more so since the signing of the free trade agreement with the International Trade Organization.
The official criticized what he called “the authorities’ health and environmental negligence” in protecting the health of citizens as well as the absence of policies aimed at stopping illegal practices which harm the environment.
Purging trade and enforcing the laws to allow citizens to comply with new practices for sorting waste are all possible solutions and can bring change to the Tunisian environment: one that would be of benefit to all. However it seems that no one has taken on this responsibility in earnest. This is not accusation but a conclusion that was arrived at by this investigation.
No one also seems to be working on trying to find a solution to the accumulating danger of used batteries, which end up being thrown randomly in nature and in the valleys.
- In countries such as Canada, America and Japan the manufacture of mercury content batteries has been completely abandoned. Meanwhile since the January 2011 revolution, the Tunisian borders remain open to all products from the parallel trade, which makes monitoring of goods quite difficult.
- Only 30% of the required amount of batteries, that is 21 million batteries, are imported through legal means into the Tunisian markets, whereas 49 million units are illegally brought in through parallel trade.
- Government officials have admitted that the size and weight of small batteries and their relatively high cost has encouraged illegal trade.
- In accordance with the Waste Disposal Law No. 41 for June 10, 1996, all dangerous waste that has been listed shall only be disposed of and treated at specialized centres given permission from the supervising authorities.
- In the absence of such licenses, the mixing of toxic and non-toxic waste shall be deemed forbidden. It is also forbidden to dump and bury toxic waster in places other than those designated areas in according with the law.
- Every offense shall be punishable with a prison term ranging from one month to five years and a monetary fine ranging from 10,000 to 500,000 Tunisian Dinars. Used batteries are considered part of the list of toxic waste that is to undergo special treatment, in accordance with Act 2339 dated October 10, 2000. Act 3395 stipulates how used batteries should be collected.
This investigation was completed with support from Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) – www.arij.net and coached by Hanene Zbiss