Smart Centers Planned to Recycle Mountains of Toxic E-Waste

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Environment News Service (ENS)

Smart Centers Planned to Recycle Mountains of Toxic E-Waste

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

NUSA DUA, Bali, Indonesia - 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.

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.

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.

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.

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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.

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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