UN agencies and industry launch network on e-waste

By FN for PCNews GOA, India, 07 March 2007

Several United Nations agencies, partners and technology companies are setting up a consortium aimed at extending the life of computers and other electronic equipment, reducing pollution and improving the salvage, which is turning into a growing problem worldwide.

The initiative is called "Solving the E-Waste Problem" (StEP) and is to be officially launched March 7 2007. It is holding out the promise that it could help those undertaking it, by harnessing discarded but "increasingly valuable and indispensable components".

Major hardware manufacturers and software companies – including Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, Dell, Ericsson, Philips and Cisco Systems – were listed as having joined UN, governmental, civil society and academic institutions, along with recycling and refurbishing companies as charter members of the initiative.

"Indeed, salvaging some of these components is necessary to avoid manufacturers running out; indium, for example – essential to the production of flat-screen TV and cell phones – has started soaring in price due to supply issues," argued the promoters of the initiative.

E-waste is a growing concern, specially in the ‘developing’ world, as the dark underbelly of the information technology (IT) and "knowledge economy" makes itself globally visible.

In this new initiative on electronic wastes (also called e-scrap), the coalition says its key goals would be standardising recycling processes globally to harvest valuable components, extending the life of products and markets for their reuse, and harmonising world legislative and policy approaches to e-scrap.

Rising volumes

STeP argues that there are "valuable resources in every scrapped product with a battery or plug – computers, TVs, radios, wired and wireless phones, MP3 players, navigation-systems, microwave ovens, coffee makers, toasters, hair-dryers, and more.

It says these items are being trashed in rising volumes worldwide.

"Worse, items charitably sent to developing countries for re-use often ultimately remain unused for a host of reasons, or are shipped by unscrupulous recyclers for illegal disposal. And, too often, e-scrap in developing countries is incinerated, not only wasting needed resources but adding toxic chemicals to the environment, both local and global," says a report released by the consortium.

"There’s more than gold in those mountains of high-tech scrap," argued Rüdiger Kühr of the United Nations University (UNU), which will host the StEP Secretariat in Bonn, Germany.

This partnership said it "is committed" to salvaging these increasingly precious resources and preventing them from fouling the environment.

Differing impacts: The India example

This issue has been affecting different countries in diverse ways. For some time now, reports in India have pointed out that the country is facing a growing issue with e-waste.

Studies available say that every year over 30 million computers are discarded in the United States of America alone, and a "large chunk" of that figure ends up in India. Specific figures were unavailable.

According to the Basel Convention to which India is also a signatory, it is illegal to export or import e-waste. But this is seen as not being effectively implemented. Toxic Link director Ravi Agrawal has blamed industry for its "total apathy" towards e-wastes too.

In February 2007, Toxic Link studied Waste from Electronic and Electrical Equipments (WEEE) in India’s commercial and financial capital of Mumbai (Bombay).

It said that Mumbai "is not just the leading generator of electronic waste in the country, but also discards a large part of it to Delhi and its adjoining areas where informal recycling sector process them in environmentally hazardous manner." See http://www.toxicslink.org/pub-view.php?pubnum=172

India itself generates about 150,000 tons of WEEE annually. Almost all of it finds its way into the informal sector, as there is no organised alternative available at present, according to the Toxics Link report.

"The actual WEEE quantity is expected to be much higher, as several other electronic products, which have not been used in the study, are being dumped into the city’s waste stream, and also because there are no figures available on imports from developed nations," said the Toxic Links report.

Globally each year, the amount of e-scrap generated would fill a line of dump trucks spanning half the globe, or roughly 40 million metric tonnes. The European Environmental Agency calculates that e-scrap volume is rising three times faster than other municipal waste.

A 2004 UNU book, ‘Computers and the Environment,’ co-authored by Mr Kühr, found the average 24 kilogram (53 pounds) desktop computer with monitor requires at least ten times its weight in fossil fuels and chemicals during the manufacturing process.

This is much more material-intensive than automobile or refrigerator manufacturing, which “only” require one to two times their weight in fossil fuels.

Inappropriate handling

Recycling of trace elements requires hi-tech processes. Inappropriate handling, says the UNU study, leads to emissions of highly toxic dioxins, soil and water contamination and waste of valuable resources.

Studies show that rapidly increasing concentrations of heavy metals in humans and in sufficient dosages can cause neuro-developmental disorders and possibly cancer.

In many industrializing and developing countries, growing numbers of people earn a living from recycling and salvaging electronic waste. In most cases, though, this is done through so-called "backyard practices," often taking place under the most primitive circumstances, exposing workers to extensive health dangers.

Producing a global guide to dismantling e-scrap and maximising the recovery and controlling recovered substances is a major StEP objective, according to the initiative promoters.

Likewise, a large-scale project to help for instance China safely dismantle and dispose of its domestic e-scrap is also in the works. Maximizing resource re-utilisation will help meet soaring demand in that country and India for increasingly scarce elements.

Inter-related StEP task forces will help shape government policies worldwide and address issues related to re-design and product life expectancy, re-use and re-cycling, and help build relevant capacity in developing nations.

Debate needed

But there could be debate about whether such an approach would work, or simply give end-users the confidence to keep on consuming in the misplaced belief that their e-wastes are being taken care of.

Recently, after the launch of the new Microsoft operating system, there was some debate in the free software and open source technology world, over how this would worsen the e-waste problem. The new operating system needs much more powerful hardware to run on, meaning a large number of otherwise perfectly working computers would become redundant in a short time.

Photo: Copyright EMPA, Switzerland
China scrap dealer
Additional images are online at http://files.step-initiative.org/browse.php?sess=0&parent=157&expand=1&fileid=0

Author: —- (FN for PCNews)
Contact: fn at apc.org
Source: APCNews
Date: 03/07/2007
Location: GOA, India
Category: Development Resources