Developing countries face surge in e-waste

Posted: 24 February 2010

Sales of electronic products in countries like China and India and across continents such as 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, according to UN experts in a landmark report released this week by UNEP.

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

 

Informal e-waste recycling, South Africa
Informal e-waste recycling, South Africa
Informal e-waste recycling, South Africa. Photo credit StEP-EMPA
In South Africa and China for example, the report predicts that by 2020 e-waste from old computers will have jumped by 200 to 400 per cent from 2007 levels, and by 500% in India

 

By that same year in China, e-waste from discarded mobile phones will be about 7 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 in India e-waste from discarded refrigerators will double or triple.

China already produces about 2.3 million tonnes (2010 estimate) domestically, second only to the United States with about 3 million tonnes. And, despite having banned e-waste imports, China remains a major e-waste dumping ground for developed countries.

Moreover, 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.

 

Informal e-waste recycling, India
Informal e-waste recycling, India
Informal e-waste recycling, India. Photo credit StEP-EMPA
"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 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," he added.

The report cites a variety of sources to illustrate growth of the e-waste problem:

  • Global e-waste generation is growing by about 40 million tons a year

     

     

  • Manufacturing mobile phones and personal computers consumes 3 per cent of the gold and silver mined worldwide each year; 13 per cent of the palladium and 15 per cent of cobalt

     

     

  • Modern electronics contain up to 60 different elements - many valuable, some hazardous, and some both
E-waste recycling factory, China
E-waste recycling factory, China
Proper e-waste dismantling - component recycling factory, China. Photo credit StEP-UNU
  • 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 - 0.1 per cent of global emissions (not including emissions linked to steel, nickel or aluminium, 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 like Senegal and Uganda can expect e-waste flows from PCs alone to increase 4 to 8-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.