UN warns developing countries of growing e-waste

E-waste could jump by 500 percent in India by 2020, and by up to 400 percent in South Africa and China from 2007 levels

Developing countries need to prepare for an avalanche of e-waste generated by PCs, consumer electronics and appliances, the United Nations said in a study released Monday.

By 2020, the e-waste levels from old computers will jump by 500 percent in India and by 200 percent to 400 percent in countries like South Africa and China from the 2007 levels, the study (PDF) said. E-waste from discarded mobile phones in 2020 will be about seven times higher than 2007 levels in China and about 18 times higher in India, the U.N. said.

Developing countries currently have no proper e-waste recycling infrastructure, said the study by the United Nations Environment Program and EMPA, a materials testing laboratory in Switzerland. Unorganized recycling and e-waste disposal methods, including the incineration of computers and mobile phones, could seriously affect human health and the environment.

"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 U.N. Under-Secretary General Achim Steiner, who is also the executive director of UNEP, in a statement.

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

Developing countries are also dumping grounds for e-waste, the study said. Electronics are incinerated by recyclers in China to recover valuable metals like gold, which could release toxic fumes into the environment. Mobile phones contain base metals such as copper, cobalt, silver and gold, which could represent about 23 percent of the weight of a phone, the U.N. said.

Electronics also contain hazardous substances, including lead, mercury and arsenic, and burning such devices releases toxic fumes into the air. Hazardous substances like mercury are also used to treat e-waste to retrieve metals like gold, which could release toxic fumes, the U.N. said in the study.

But if done properly, precious metals and other materials can be recovered in an environmentally friendly and inexpensive manner, the U.N. said. E-waste could be handed over to countries with sufficient facilities to sort, dismantle and treat electronic waste, minimizing the environmental impact. For example, e-waste from Central European countries could be handled by Hungary, which is better equipped to treat e-waste, the report said.

The U.N. also suggested ways of effectively recycling materials, such as by freezing consumer electronics and appliances to remove hazardous parts or by establishing manual or automated dismantling lines to remove elements. Manual dismantling is not only ecologically efficient, but could also create sustainable business opportunities in developing countries.

Many consumer electronic companies are making efforts to reduce hazardous substances used in PCs and consumer electronics. Apple and other PC makers have made commitments to phase out the use of chemicals like brominated fire retardants and polyvinyl chloride in components and circuit boards.

The European Union in 2003 adopted the ROHS (Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive), which restricts the use of hazardous substances in electronics. Efforts are under way in the U.S. to promote responsible recycling of consumer electronics, with recyclers, nonprofits and companies like Waste Management creating a certification program to promote safe and ethical e-waste disposal.

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