Gadget E-Waste Poses Significant Risks, U.N. Warns
A sharp rise in the sale of consumer gadgets around the globe will pose serious environmental and public-health risks over the next 10 years unless action is taken to properly collect and recycle their materials, according to a report from the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP). The products range from computers, printers and mobile phones to music devices, electronic toys, and televisions.
Based on the data collected by the UNEP to date, the e-waste from discarded computers will rise 200 to 500 percent over the next 10 years in comparison with 2007 levels in countries such as China, India and South Africa. E-waste from cell phones is also projected to grow in China and India by seven and 18 times, respectively, during the same period.
"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 UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner.
The Transition To a Green Economy
The UNEP report singles out China as an example of the e-waste challenges ahead. The world's largest consumer market is expected to produce about 2.3 million tons of e-waste this year, second only to the United States with about three million tons.
China also remains a major e-waste dumping ground for developed countries, even though Chinese authorities banned e-waste imports. But China isn't alone in facing a serious challenge, Steiner noted. "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" -- which primarily is comprised of backyard recyclers who incinerate discarded electronic products as an easy way to recover gold, silver, palladium, cobalt and other valuable metals, he said.
Such unsupervised practices end up releasing plumes of far-reaching toxic gases, which results in significant health problems for those who become exposed. Backyard recyclers also are unable to achieve the high metal recovery rates of state-of-the-art industrial facilities.
Mobile-phone and PC manufacturing consumes three percent of the gold and silver, 13 percent of the palladium, and 15 percent of the cobalt mined worldwide each year. Boosting recovery rates potentially could generate employment and cut greenhouse-gas emissions by eliminating the carbon dioxide required to mine these and other rare metals, noted U.N. Under-Secretary General Konrad Osterwalder.
"One person's waste can be another's raw material," Osterwalder said. "The challenge of dealing with e-waste represents an important step in the transition to a green economy."
Alternative Business Models
However, simply financing and transferring high-tech equipment from developed countries is unlikely to work. Future success will also require the development of alternative business models driven by financial incentives, the report said.
The UNEP cites Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Morocco and South Africa as places where the introduction of state-of-the-art e-waste recycling has the greatest immediate potential because the informal e-waste sector in these nations is relatively small. By contrast, China's lack of a comprehensive e-waste collection network -- combined with competition from the lower-cost informal sector -- is preventing state-of-the-art e-waste recycling plants from being introduced there.
The report calls upon developing nations to create "a fair competitive environment with common rules" that clearly favor the development and application of innovative recycling technologies while allowing the informal recycling sector to continue to participate using safe recycling processes. The goal is to transfer all potentially hazardous operations to state-of-the-art formal recyclers.