Urgent need to prepare developing countries for e-waste surge

22 February 2010

Informal e-waste recycling in India
Informal e-waste recycling in India

Sales of electronic products in countries such as China and India and across continents including Africa and Latin America are set to rise sharply in the next 10 years.

And, unless action is stepped up to properly collect and recycle materials, many developing countries face the spectre of hazardous e-waste mountains with serious consequences for the environment and public health. That’s according to UN experts in the report from UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme).

Issued at a meeting of Basel Convention and other world chemical authorities prior to UNEP's Governing Council meeting in Bali, the report, ‘Recycling - from E-Waste to Resources,’ used data from 11 representative developing countries to estimate current and future e-waste. This includes old and dilapidated desktop and laptop computers, printers, mobile phones, pagers, digital photo and music devices, refrigerators, toys, and televisions.

In South Africa and China, the report predicts that by 2020 e-waste from old computers will have jumped by 200% to 400% from 2007 levels, and by 500% in India. By that same year in China, e-waste from discarded mobile phones will be about seven times higher than 2007 levels and, in India, 18 times higher.

By 2020, e-waste from televisions will be 1.5 to 2 times higher in China and India, while e-waste from discarded refrigerators in India will double or triple.

China already produces about 2.3 million tonnes (2010 estimate) domestically, second only to the United States with about three million tonnes. And, despite having banned e-waste imports, China remains a major e-waste dumping ground for developed countries.

Furthermore, most e-waste in China is improperly handled. Much of it incinerated by ‘backyard recyclers’ in order to recover valuable metals; practices that release steady plumes of far-reaching toxic pollution and yield very low metal recovery rates compared to state-of-the-art industrial facilities.

"This report gives new urgency to establishing ambitious, formal and regulated processes for collecting and managing e-waste via the setting up of large, efficient facilities in China," says UN Under-Secretary-General Achim Steiner, Executive Director of UNEP. "China is not alone in facing a serious challenge. India, Brazil, Mexico and others may also face rising environmental damage and health problems if e-waste recycling is left to the vagaries of the informal sector. "In addition to curbing health problems, boosting developing country e-waste recycling rates can have the potential to generate employment, cut greenhouse gas emissions, and recover a range of valuable metals including silver, gold, palladium, copper and indium. By acting now and planning forward, many countries can turn an e-challenge into an e-opportunity," he added.

The report was issued at the Simultaneous Extraordinary Meetings of the Conferences of the Parties to the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions on enhancing their co-operation and co-ordination (ExCOP).

It was co-authored by the Swiss EMPA, Umicore and United Nations University (UNU), part of the global think tank StEP (Solving the E-waste Problem), which includes UNEP and Basel Convention Secretariat among its 50+ members. Hosted by UNU in Bonn, Germany, the think tank convenes experts from industry, government, international organizations, NGOs and science. A grant from the European Commission, Directorate-General for the Environment, funded the report's preparation.

The report cites a variety of sources to illustrate the growth of the e-waste problem:
• Global e-waste is growing by about 40 million tons a year
• Manufacturing mobile phones and personal computers consumes 3% of the gold and silver mined worldwide each year; 13% of the palladium and 15% of cobalt
• Modern electronics contain up to 60 different elements; many valuable, some hazardous, and some both
• Carbon dioxide emissions from the mining and production of copper and precious and rare metals used in electrical and electronic equipment are estimated at over 23 million tonnes; some 0.1% of global emissions (not including emissions linked to steel, nickel or aluminum, nor those linked to manufacturing the devices)
• In the US, more than 150 million mobiles and pagers were sold in 2008, up from 90 million five years before
• Globally, more than 1 billion mobile phones were sold in 2007, up from 896 million in 2006
• Countries such as Senegal and Uganda can expect e-waste flows from PCs alone to increase four to eight-fold by 2020.

Given the infrastructure expense and technology skills required to create proper facilities for efficient and environmentally sound metal recovery, the report suggests facilitating exports of critical e-scrap fractions like circuit boards or batteries from smaller countries to OECD-level, certified end-processors.

Konrad Osterwalder, UN Under-Secretary General and Rector of UNU, stated: "One person's waste can be another's raw material. The challenge of dealing with e-waste represents an important step in the transition to a green economy. This report outlines smart new technologies and mechanisms which, combined with national and international policies, can transform waste into assets, creating new businesses with decent green jobs. In the process, countries can help cut pollution linked with mining and manufacturing, and with the disposal of old devices."

Developing vibrant national recycling schemes is complex and simply financing and transferring high tech equipment from developed countries is unlikely to work, according to the report. It says that China's lack of a comprehensive e-waste collection network, combined with competition from the lower-cost informal sector, has held back state-of-the art e-waste recycling plants. It also notes a successful pilot in Bangalore, India, to transform the operations of informal e-waste collection and management.

Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Morocco and South Africa are cited as places with great potential to introduce state of the art e-waste recycling technologies because the informal e-waste sector is relatively small. Kenya, Peru, Senegal and Uganda have relatively low e-waste volumes today but are likely to grow. All four would benefit from capacity building in so-called pre-processing technologies such as manual dismantling of e-waste.

The report recommends that countries establish e-waste management centres of excellence, building on existing organisations working in the area of recycling and waste management.
Existing bodies include those supported by the United Nations, including more than 40 National Cleaner Production Centres established by the UN Industrial and Development Organisation and the regional centres established under the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal.

Image credit: StEP-EMPA

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