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Inside Story

Today's technology, tomorrow's trash?

As a UN report warns of the hazards of electronic waste, we ask if the world is ready to tackle technology trash.

Last updated: 16 Dec 2013 13:07
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The number of electronic and electrical gadgets being dumped around the world is set to soar, raising concerns about the impact on the environment and human health.

Rapid advances in technology are giving rise to what is being described as a buy-it-and-bin-it generation. People are throwing away everything from TVs to toys, computers to cameras, and mobile phones to motorised toothbrushes.

The fact is some of the [e-waste] supply chains are very long. In the UK there are many sub-contractors who get involved in the supply chain and divert the e-waste on to the black market rather than go into the proper recycling facility.

Julian Newman, Campaigns Director for the Environmental Investigation Agency, UK

Now, a new UN study is forecasting that the amount of global e-waste, as it is called, will rise by one-third by 2017.

The report says 48.9 million metric tons of e-waste was produced last year. That is expected to rise by 33 percent by 2017 bringing total global e-waste to 65.4 million tons.

That is enough to fill a line of 40-ton trucks that, end-to-end, would stretch three-quarters of the way around the world.

The largest producers are the US and China. They generated 10 million tons and 11.1 million tons respectively last year.

Each American is said to be responsible for an average 29.8kg of hi-tech trash a year that is almost six times higher than China's per capita figure of 5.4kg.

Keep the laws aside, the people in general are treating this [electronic] waste in their own way. And it is not a very wrong way because they isolate the entire reusable things …. You won't find any heaps [of e-waste] in Pakistan.

Sami Uz Zaman, an industrial research scientist, Pakistan

"There are laws in Europe, quite strong laws, about the rules what we can export or what we cannot export yet we see these laws are disregarded often and we see the evidence in places like Ghana, Nigeria, India and China where we can go to the dump sites and see computers from Europe openly being broken down illegally," explains Julian Newman, the campaigns director for the Environmental Investigation Agency in the UK.

The UN study has been carried out by StEP (Solving the E-waste Problem), a coalition of UN organisations, industry, governments, NGOs and science bodies.

"Some countries are moving towards safe recycling and reuse of e-waste. But it's feared the increasing demand for electronics, will overwhelm existing facilities. This could see millions of tonnes of waste dumped into landfills," Ruediger Kuehr, the executive secretary of StEP told Al Jazeera.

The report warns that e-waste is being dumped illegally in developing countries. It says the garbage contains toxic substances such as mercury, cadmium and arsenic, which can seep into landfills, contaminating the ground, water and air.

The study adds that devices are often dismantled in dangerous conditions, harming the health of those involved.

StEP is calling for better monitoring of e-waste exports, and more effective rules for the treatment of electrical junk.

So why is today's technology destined to become tomorrow's trash? And what is being done to tackle the growing global crisis of e-waste?

Inside Story presenter Sohail Rahman discusses with guests: Sami Uz Zaman, a consultant for Global Environmental Management Services, an environmental court judge, and an industrial research scientist in Pakistan; Julian Newman, the campaigns director for the Environmental Investigation Agency in the UK; and Akshat Ghiya, the co-founder and director of Karma Recycling, specialising in electronic waste in India.

"[In India], 95 percent of all e-waste ends up in slums ... A shift in mentality is so difficult to achieve and that is what we are working on. Out in the UK they have developed that mentality and you have consumers who are weary and know about the hazards of electronic waste management done in an improper way. India has the capacity to tackle massive amounts of [electronic] waste but it does not have the capacity to tackle it scientifically and responsibly."

Akshat Ghiya, the co-founder and director of Karma Recycling

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Source:
Al Jazeera
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