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As e-waste mountains soar, UN urges smart technologies to protect health

Proper e-waste collection, recycling key to recovering valuable materials (file photo).
Proper e-waste collection, recycling key to recovering valuable materials (file photo).

As e-waste mountains soar, UN urges smart technologies to protect health

With the mountains of hazardous waste from electronic products growing exponentially in developing countries, sometimes by as much as 500 per cent, the United Nations today called for new recycling technologies and regulations to safeguard both public health and the environment.

So-called e-waste from products such as old computers, printers, mobile phones, pagers, digital photo and music devices, refrigerators, toys and televisions, are set to rise sharply in tandem with growth in sales in countries like China and India and in Africa and Latin America over the next 10 years, according to a report issued by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

The study, Recycling – from E-Waste to Resources, launched at a meeting of hazardous wastes experts in Bali, Indonesia, predicts that by 2020 e-waste from old computers will have jumped by 500 per cent from 2007 levels in India, and by 200 to 400 per cent in South Africa and China, while that from old mobile phones will be 7 times higher in China and 18 times higher in India.

At the same time, most e-waste in China is improperly handled, much of it incinerated by backyard recyclers to recover valuable metals like gold, 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,” UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner said. “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 decent employment, cut greenhouse gas emissions and recover a wide 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.”

The report, issued at a conference of parties to the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions dealing with hazardous wastes ahead of UNEP’s Governing Council meeting in Bali, recommends that countries establish e-waste management centres of excellence, building on existing organizations working in the area of recycling and waste management.

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 said, while noting a successful pilot in Bangalore, India, to transform 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 these 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 says.

It notes that China already produces about 2.3 million tonnes of e-waste domestically each year, second only to the United States with about 3 million tonnes, while it remains a major dumping ground for developed countries despite having banned e-waste imports.

“One person’s waste can be another’s raw material,” said Konrad Osterwalder, Rector of the UN University (UNU), which was among the co-authors of the report together with the Swiss EMPA research institute and Umicore, an international speciality materials group. “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.”