Smart Centers Planned to Recycle Mountains of Toxic E-Waste
NUSA DUA, Bali, Indonesia, February 23, 2010 (ENS) - To safely manage the floods of obsolete electronics headed their way, developing countries need to establish e-waste management centers of excellence, the United Nations Environment Programme advises in a report released Monday.

Sales of electronic products in China and India and across Africa and Latin America are set to rise sharply in the next 10 years, according to UN experts in the report. Unless environmentally sound actions are taken to collect and recycle materials, many developing countries will face mountains of old computers, printers, mobile phones, pagers, digital photo and music devices, refrigerators, toys and televisions with serious consequences for the environment and public health.

Mountain of discarded electronics in Guiyu, China, one of the biggest e-waste centers of the world. (Photo by Bert van Dijk)

Electronics contain up to 60 different elements, many valuable, some hazardous, and some both. The report advises that if centers of recycling excellence are set up, obsolete electronics that contain valuable metals such as silver, gold, palladium, copper and indium can be harvested while creating recycling jobs.

Said Konrad Osterwalder, rector of United Nations University, which co-authored the report, "One person's waste can be another's raw material. The challenge of dealing with e-waste represents an important step in the transition to a green economy."

"This report outlines smart new technologies and mechanisms which, combined with national and international policies, can transform waste into assets, creating new businesses with decent green jobs," said Osterwalder. "In the process, countries can help cut pollution linked with mining and manufacturing, and with the disposal of old devices."

The idea of mountains of e-waste is no exaggeration. Global e-waste generation is growing by about 40 million tons a year, the report states. Globally, more than one billion mobile phones were sold in 2007, up from 896 million in 2006.

In the United States, more than 150 million mobile phones and pagers were sold in 2008, up from 90 million five years before.

Chinese girl holds a discarded keyboard, part of a mountain of e-waste that landed in her village. (Photo courtesy Greenpeace)

Manufacturing mobile phones and personal computers consumes three percent of the gold and silver mined worldwide each year; 13 percent of the palladium and 15 percent of cobalt.

The report finds that carbon dioxide emissions from the mining and production of copper and precious and rare metals used in electrical and electronic equipment are estimated at over 23 million tonnes - one-tenth of a percent of global emissions. This figure does not include CO2 emissions linked to steel, nickel or aluminum, nor those linked to manufacturing the devices.

"Recycling - from E-Waste to Resources," used data from 11 developing countries to estimate current and future e-waste generation.

In South Africa and China for example, the report predicts that by 2020 e-waste from old computers will have jumped by 200 to 400 percent from 2007 levels, and by 500 percent in India.

By 2020 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.

In a Chinese village, this man burns plastic circuit boards to recover the precious metals, releasing toxic smoke. (Photo courtesy StEP-EMPA)

China already produces about 2.3 million tonnes domestically, second only to the United States with about three million tonnes. And, despite having banned e-waste imports, China remains a major e-waste dumping ground for developed countries.

Most e-waste in China is improperly handled, much of it incinerated by backyard recyclers to recover the gold, but these informal practices release plumes of toxic pollution and yield very low metal recovery rates compared to state-of-the-art industrial facilities, this report and past investigations have found.

"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," says UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner.

"China is not alone in facing a serious challenge," he said. "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."

The report was issued at a meeting of world chemical authorities prior to UNEP's Governing Council meeting in Bali, Indonesia, which opens Wednesday.

The meeting brings together the Parties to three treaties - the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions - that are working to enhance their cooperation and coordinate their activities.

The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal is the most comprehensive global environmental agreement on hazardous and other wastes and has 172 government Parties. In 2008, Parties adopted guidelines on collecting and refurbishing used mobile phones and the recovery and recycling their components at end-of-life.

The Rotterdam Convention covers 40 pesticides and industrial chemicals that have been banned or severely restricted for health or environmental reasons by the Parties.

The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants protects human health and the environment from chemicals that remain intact in the environment for long periods, become widely distributed geographically, accumulate in the fatty tissue of living organisms and are toxic to humans and wildlife.

Finding a way forward will be challenging, the report concludes. Developing vibrant national recycling schemes is complex and simply financing and transferring high tech equipment from developed countries is unlikely to work, according to the report.

A modern e-waste dismantling-component recycling factory in China (Photo courtesy StEP-UNU)

It says China's lack of a comprehensive e-waste collection network, combined with competition from the lower-cost informal sector, has held back state-of-the art e-waste recycling plants.

It notes a successful pilot in Bangalore, India to transform the operations of informal e-waste collection and management.

Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Morocco and South Africa are cited as places with great potential to introduce state of the art e-waste recycling technologies because the informal e-waste sector is relatively small.

Kenya, Peru, Senegal and Uganda have relatively low e-waste volumes today but these volumes are likely to grow. All four countries would benefit from capacity building in so-called pre-processing technologies such as manual dismantling of e-waste.

The report recommends countries establish e-waste management centers of excellence, building on existing organizations, including the more than 40 National Cleaner Production Centers established by the UN Industrial and Development Organization and the regional centers established under the Basel Convention.

The report was co-authored by EMPA, the research institute for material science and technology of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, a pioneer in monitoring and controlling for e-waste management systems and setting recycling and disposal standards.

Another co-author was Umicore, an international speciality materials group with a state-of-the-art integrated metals smelter and refinery at Hoboken, Belgium where precious metals as well as base and special metals are recovered and brought back to the market as pure metals.

EMPA and Umicore are part of the StEP Initiative, Solving the E-Waste Problem, a think tank hosted by UNU in Bonn, Germany. StEP's more than 50 members include UNEP and the Basel Convention Secretariat, industry, government and international organizations, NGOs and the science sector.

A grant from the European Commission Directorate-General for the Environment funded the report's preparation.

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