E-waste ‘mountains’ threaten developing countries

Old computers in China: e-waste is set to swell in developing countries Copyright: Flickr/Bert van Dijk

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A surge in sales of computers and mobile phones across the developing world will lead to hazardous amounts of electronic waste (e-waste) in the next decade, warns a UN report.

It is well known that e-waste — discarded goods such as computers, mobile phones and refrigerators — has serious consequences for public health and the environment (see E-waste ‘endangers health’ in Chinese town).

The report, by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the UN University (UNU), was launched in Bali yesterday (22 February). It used data from 11 developing countries to make projections for e-waste levels.

It predicted that e-waste from computers in China — which is behind only the United States in generating e-waste — and South Africa will increase up to five times by 2020 and e-waste from mobile phones in India will be 18 times higher than 2007 levels.

The report’s authors said that immediate action is needed to dispose of e-waste responsibly.

Achim Steiner, UNEP executive director, said the report "gives new urgency to establishing ambitious, formal and regulated processes for collecting and managing e-waste".

One danger from e-waste is that impoverished people burn it to salvage precious metals — co-author Rudi Kuehr from the UNU said yesterday that between 40 and 60 elements from the periodic table are found in ordinary e-waste.

"What is needed in developing countries is capacity building [for e-waste recycling] to ensure it is done safely and with respect for the environment," said Kuehr.

The report suggests that the dismantling of electronic goods by hand could create sustainable business opportunities. New products could be created from old circuit boards; hazardous parts could be removed from freezing appliances.

Kuehr said that better quality manufacturing should be encouraged and that leasing technology so that old equipment can be returned to the manufacturer for proper disposal was being discussed.

Lene Ecroignard, research and development manager for South Africa’s e-waste umbrella body, EWASA, said the country had introduced new laws for disposing of e-waste.

"It’s become a vibrant industry. Four big new facilities are planned and we are working on more efficient and safer ways to process e-waste all the time."

She said that a pilot recycling facility set up in Cape Town two years ago (see Blueprint to process e-waste in Africa developed) was "going from strength to strength with a growing number of collection points".