UN warns of 'e-waste' threat
Experts meet in Bali to try to address growing problem of electronic waste pollution.
Last Modified: 22 Feb 2010 07:18 GMT

The UNEP report said China and India are topping the list for posing the biggest threat [EPA]

A report compiled by the United Nations has warned of the growing threat posed by discarded electronics such as computers and mobile phones as experts kicked-off a meeting on the issue in Indonesia.

The report on the growth of so-called e-waste said sales of electronic products in countries like China and India are set to soar in the next 10 years, with a consequent rise in the volume of sometimes highly-toxic waste.

Global e-waste problem

 Global e-waste growing by some 40 million tonnes a year

 Manufacturing of mobile phones and personal computers uses 3 per cent of world gold and silver output, 13 per cent of palladium and 15 per cent of cobalt

 Modern electronics contain up to 60 different elements, some hazardous

 In 2008 more than 150 million mobile phones and pagers sold in the US, up from 90 million five years earlier

 More than 1 billion mobile phones sold globally in 2007, up from 896 million in 2006

Source: UNEP report

The report noted that China already produced more than 2.3 million tonnes of e-waste a year – second only to the United States – and had also become a dumping ground for waste from other countries.

Without immediate action to ensure proper collection and disposal of materials, many particularly developing countries "face the spectre of hazardous e-waste mountains with serious consequences for the environment and public health", it said.

The report "Recycling – from E-Waste to Resources" was released on the Indonesian island of Bali on Monday at the start of a week-long meeting of officials and environmentalists.

Organisers say the conference is the largest world environmental gathering since the Copenhagen climate summit in December.

According to the report's authors by 2020 e-waste in South Africa and China will have jumped by 200-400 per cent from 2007 levels, and by 500 per cent in India.

In China's case they said millions of tons of e-waste was being improperly handled, much of it incinerated by backyard recyclers to extract precious metals often creating toxic pollutants.

India is among developing countries facing rising environmental problems [GALLO/GETTY]
Achim Steiner, the UN undersecretary-general and executive director of the UNEP said there was a "new urgency to establishing ambitious, formal and regulated processes" for the collection and management of e-waste.

He said that besides China, other countries including India, Brazil and Mexico may also face rising environmental damage and health problems "if e-waste recycling is left to the vagaries of the informal sector".

Steiner said advance planning to boost recycling of e-waste in developing nations could "turn an e-challenge into an e-opportunity" by creating jobs, cutting greenhouse gas emissions and recovering a host of valuable metals.

The report cited Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Morocco and South Africa as places which it said had huge potential to introduce state-of-the-art recycling technologies for e-waste.

For several African nations such as Kenya, Peru, Senegal and Uganda where the volume of e-waste is expected to rise rapidly in the coming years, the report recommended the introduction of manual dismantling.

Green economy

The report said that since financing and transferring hi-tech equipment from developed countries "is unlikely to work", developing national recycling schemes would be a more practical way forward.

Experts also said the challenge of dealing with e-waste was an important step in the transition to a green economy.

"One person's waste can be another's raw material," Konrad Osterwalder, the rector of the United Nations University, said in the report.

"This report outlines smart new technologies and mechanisms which... can transform waste into assets, creating new businesses with decent green jobs.

"In the process, countries can help cut pollution linked with mining and manufacturing, and with the disposal of old devices."

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