A report from the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), co-authored by several other organisations and funded by the EU, has predicted a surge in e-waste in developing countries as sales of cell phones and other electronic gadgets rocket.
In China, India and across Africa and Latin America sales of electronic products are set to rise sharply in the next 10 years. The report, ‘Recycling - from E-Waste to Resources’, says that 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.
The report predicts that:
• In South Africa and China, 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 in India e-waste from discarded refrigerators will double or triple.
The report points out that most e-waste in China is improperly handled, much of it incinerated by backyard recyclers to recover valuable metals like gold - practices that release 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," 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.
It’s not just developing countries that have to address the problem, though, as the report also points out:
• Global e-waste generation 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.
• 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.
The report does review some of the efforts in various countries and points out that, for example, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Morocco and South Africa have a great potential to introduce state of the art e-waste recycling technologies because their informal e-waste sector is relatively small. So there are clear opportunities to do things better and reap the rewards.
E-waste is certainly a growing problem, though. The use of mobile phones and other gadgets and devices continues to expand and is unlikely to slow down in the near future – we saw a new format with the recently announced Apple i-Pad, for example. So it’s a problem that needs to be managed and the increasingly strict regulations in the developed world is pushing the focus on to developing countries.