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E-waste may be poisoning developing nations

Developing countries are accumulating mountains of hazardous e-waste, with serious consequences for the environment and public health unless they start preparing for safe recycling now, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) warned this week. Sales of electronic products in countries like China and India and across continents such as Africa and Latin America are set...

Developing countries are accumulating mountains of hazardous e-waste, with serious consequences for the environment and public health unless they start preparing for safe recycling now, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) warned this week.

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 ten years, UNEP said in a new report about the problem.

The consequences could be disastrous unless action is stepped up to properly collect and recycle materials, the agency warned.


Informal e-waste recycling, South Africa.

Photo credit StEP-EMPA

The UNEP report, “Recycling–from E-Waste to Resources,” used data from 11 developing countries to estimate current and future e-waste generation, including old and dilapidated desk and laptop computers, printers, mobile phones, pagers, digital photo and music devices, refrigerators, toys and television sets.


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 percent from 2007 levels. In India e-waste will have grown five-fold.

By that same year in China, e-waste from discarded mobile phones will be 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 could triple.

China already produces about 2.3 million tonnes of e-waste (2010 estimate) domestically, second only to the United States with about 3 million tonnes, UNEP said.

On top of that, China remains a major e-waste dumping ground for developed countries, “despite having banned e-waste imports,” the agency added.

“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, China (top and bottom)

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,” said 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.


Informal e-waste recycling, China

Photo credit StEP-EMPA

The report cites these examples of the growth of the e-waste:

  • 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.
  • In the U.S., more than 150 million mobile phones 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.


Informal e-waste recycling, India (top and bottom)

Photo credit StEP-EMPA

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 certified end-processors in developed countries.

Said Konrad Osterwalder, UN Under-Secretary General: “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.”


Informal e-waste recycling, South Africa

Photo credit StEP-EMPA

Developing vibrant national recycling schemes is complex and simply financing and transfering high tech equipment from developed countries is unlikely to work, according to the report.

“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,” the report said.


Informal e-waste recycling, China (top and bottom)

Photo credit StEP-EMPA

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 likely to grow. All four would benefit from capacity building in so-called pre-processing technologies such as manual dismantling of e-waste, UNEP said.


Proper e-waste dismantling-component recycling factory, China

Photo credit StEP-EMPA

The report recommends countries establish e-waste management centers of excellence, building on existing organizations working in the area of recycling and waste management.


Informal e-waste recycling, India (top and bottom)

Photo credit StEP-EMPA

Broken down by type of e-waste, the report estimates e-waste generation today as follows:

China: 500,000 tonnes from refrigerators, 1.3 million tonnes from TVs, 300,000 tonnes from personal computers

India: over 100,000 tonnes from refrigerators, 275,000 tonnes from TVs, 56,300 tonnes from personal computers, 4,700 tonnes from printers and 1,700 tonnes from mobile phones

Colombia: about 9,000 tonnes from refrigerators, over 18,000 tonnes from TVs, 6,500 tonnes from personal computers, 1,300 tonnes from printers, 1,200 tonnes from mobile phones

Kenya: 11,400 tonnes from refrigerators, 2,800 tonnes from TVs, 2,500 tonnes from personal computers, 500 tonnes from printers, 150 tonnes from mobile phones

The report also includes data on per capita sales of electrical and electronic goods. For example South Africa and Mexico lead in personal computer sales with the equivalent of 24 sold per 1,000 people. Brazil, Mexico and Senegal generate more e-waste per capita from personal computers than the other countries surveyed.

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Author Photo David Max Braun
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn