UN predicts from bad to worse on e-waste problem

UN: As more developing nations start to buy electronics locally, the e-waste challenge could grow exponentially.

How bad is the electronic waste (aka e-waste problem)?

Up until now, we've been worried (or at least I've been worried) mainly about the United States and European countries dumping their cast-off electronics on countries such as China and India, where many are being disposed or recycled of improperly.

Now, a new report from the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) suggests that a new problem is in the offing: With a mountain of electronics good expected to be sold into China, India, Africa and South America over the next decade, the potential for such a problem will be multiplied exponentially.

"Recycling - from E-Waste to Resources," examines the e-waste scenarios possible in 2020. It is based on information collected from 11 developing nations. Consider the following:

  • E-waste in South Africa and China will jump between 200 percent and 400 percent of 2007 levels; it will jump by 500 percent in India
  • E-waste from mobile phones alone will increase by 7 times in China and 18 times in India between now and 2020
  • China is second only to the United States in the e-wast is produces NOW, with about 2.3 million tons to the U.S.'s 3 million tons. About 1.3 million tons in China are from TVs, with 300,000 tons from personal computers
  • Global e-waste generation is growing by about 40 million tons annually
  • Approximately 3 percent of the gold and silver mined each year is used in the production of mobile phones and computers

Here's the requisite commentary from the United Nations (courtesy of UN Under-Secretary General Achim Steiner, who is executive director of the UNEP):

"This report gives new urgency to establishing ambitious, formal and regulate processes for collecting and managing e-waste via the setting up of large, efficient facilities in China. 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."

If you think about it, the smaller the electronics gadget, the easier it is to dump it into the electronics waste stream, which means that the continuous push toward increased mobility will only exacerbate the challenge.

I want to note that this report is not all doom and gloom. In fact, it seeks to examine ways in which raw materials used from e-waste can be reused. Your basic gadget contains up to 60 different elements today, which the report variously describes as valuable, hazardous or both.

Here's some insight from Konrad Osterwalder, UN Under-Secretary General and rector of the United Nations University, taken from the press release about 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. In the process, countries can help cut pollution linked with mining and manufacturing, and with the disposal of old devices."

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