Tech waste mountain may engulf Third World

Many developing countries face the "spectre of hazardous e-waste mountains" with serious consequences for the environment and public health, UN researchers claim, in a report

Global e-waste generation is growing by about 40 million tons a year, the report, Recycling - from E-Waste to Resources, released today by the United Nations Environment Programme says.

It collected data from 11 developing countries to predict that by 2020 e-waste from old computers will have jumped by 200 to 400 per cent from 2007 levels, in South Africa and China. And by 500 per cent in India.

Modern electronics contain up to 60 different elements, the report notes, many valuable, some hazardous, and some both. But most e-waste in places like China is improperly handled, much of it incinerated by backyard recyclers to recover metals like gold - practices that release steady plumes of far-reaching toxic pollution and yield very low metal recovery rates.

Mobile phones and PCs consume three per cent of the gold and silver mined worldwide each year, 13 per cent of the palladium and 15 per cent of cobalt. Carbon dioxide emissions from the mining of rare metals used the equipment are estimated at over 23 million tonnes, the report notes.

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

UN Under-Secretary-General Achim Steiner, Executive Director of UNEP 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."

To properly deal with the growing waste material, the report suggests facilitating exports of critical scrap like circuit boards or batteries from smaller countries to OECD-level, certified end-processors.

"In addition to curbing health problems, boosting developing country 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," Steiner added.

"One person's waste can be another's raw material," says Konrad Osterwalder, UN Under-Secretary General and Rector of the United Nations University. "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."

The report was co-authored by the Swiss EMPA, Umicore and United Nations University, part of the global think tank StEP (Solving the E-waste Problem), which includes UNEP and Basel Convention Secretariat among its members.