Developing Nations Risk E-Waste Crisis

As consumption of computers, cell phones, and TVs escalates across the globe, countries need to establish proper recycling programs to deal with all the electronic waste, says the U.N.

Antone Gonsalves, Contributor

February 22, 2010

2 Min Read

Unless proper electronic-waste recycling is established in developing countries, they will face serious environmental and public health consequences, a United Nations report says.

The urgency in addressing e-waste disposal is driven by the sharp rise in sales of electronic products expected over the next 10 years in countries like China and India, across continents such as Africa, and over large regions including Latin America, the U.N. said. Such imports are expected to add millions of tons of e-waste in regions where recycling efforts are inadequate to handle even current e-waste levels.

For example, most e-waste in China is improperly handled today, with much of it incinerated by backyard recyclers to recover valuable metals like gold. Such practices release steady plumes of toxic pollution and yield very low metal recovery rates compared to state-of-the-art industrial facilities.

While such grossly inadequate recycling efforts are not being properly addressed, the mountain of e-waste that exists today is growing. For example, e-waste from old computers is expected to jump from 2007 levels by 200% to 400% in South Africa and China and by 500% in India.

E-waste from discarded mobile phones will be about seven times higher than 2007 levels in China and 18 times higher in India, the report released Monday from the U.N. Environment Programme said. E-waste from televisions will be 1.5 to two times higher in China and India.

This year, China is expected to produce about 2.3 million tons of e-waste domestically, second only to the United States with about 3 million tons.

"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 Achim Steiner, U.N. under-secretary general and executive director of UNEP, in a statement.

In calling for action in e-waste recycling in developing nations, the U.N. report, "Recycling -- From E-Waste To Resources," points out that boosting recycling rates can generate employment, cut greenhouse 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 said.

In places like China, developing an effective national recycling scheme will be difficult and slow because of the lack of a comprehensive e-waste collection network, combined with competition from the lower-cost informal sector. However, other countries, such as Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Morocco, and South Africa, have great potential to introduce state-of-the-art e-waste recycling technologies because the informal sector is relatively small.

Among the recommendations in the report is for countries to establish e-waste management centers of excellence that build on existing organizations working in the area of recycling and waste management.

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