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[GOA] The UN is to set up an initiative to extend the life of computers and electronic equipment and tackle the growing problem of 'e-waste' in the developing world.

Discarded electronic equipment can contaminate soil and water, and is a growing problem in developing countries as information technology becomes increasingly popular.

The Solving the E-waste Problem (StEP) is a consortium of major hardware manufacturers and software companies — including Cisco Systems, Dell, Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft — the UN and partner organisations.

The initiative will be launched tomorrow (7 March), and will highlight how many electronic items sent to developing countries in the name of charity often end up unused.

The key goals of the initiative will be to draw up global standards for recycling, extending the life of products thus creating markets for their reuse, and harmonising world legislation and policy toward e-waste.

It will also take a 'wealth from waste' approach, arguing that it is in the interest of manufacturers to recycle, enabling them to recover many expensive metals — such as Indium used in flat-screen monitors and mobile phones.

"There's more than gold in those mountains of high-tech scrap," said Ruediger Kuehr of the United Nations University, which will host the StEP Secretariat in Bonn, Germany.

Burning e-waste causes emissions of highly toxic chemicals, which contaminate soil and water. Studies have shown rapidly increasing concentrations of heavy metals in humans. In sufficiently high doses they can cause cancer and problems with brain development.

STeP plans a large-scale project to help China safely dismantle and dispose of its domestic e-scrap. Supporters of the initiative say that maximising resources by reusing e-waste will help meet soaring demand in China and India for increasingly scarce resources such as ruthenium, used in resistors and hard disk drives.

Some software experts have voiced concerns that Microsoft's new Vista operating system could worsen the problem by requiring more powerful hardware — making a large number of computers suddenly redundant.

In February, a study by Toxic Link, an Indian nongovernmental organisation, found that India generates 150,000 tons of e-waste annually.