Monday, 14 October 2019

E-Waste’s Toxic Trail Closing The Loop

Updated: March 20, 2010 11:45 am

Rapid technological changes, booming consumerism and increasing digitalisation have forced many industrialised states to address the challenge of e-waste the world’s newest and fastest growing waste stream. In the developing world, in particular, this new challenge looms large and untested.


The global production of electronic devices, particularly Information and Communication Technologies (ICT), faces the biggest industrial expansion in history. OECD figures show that global trade of ICT technologies accounted for almost eight per cent of the gross world product by 2004. Although this trend has been slightly decelerated in the past few years due to deteriorating economic conditions, it still remains high. In particular, non-OECD economies maintain growth paths that in part compensate for recession in OECD economies. Non-OECD economies make up over 20 percent of the global ICT market, with expenditures in Brazil, China, India, Indonesia and Russia all growing between 2003 and 2007 at more than 20 per cent. Besides, around 50 per cent of ICT goods production now comes from non-OECD countries, and these, notably China and India, are increasingly the home of top ICT firms.

            This global expansion goes along with fast-growing sales figures of ICT equipment, in particular personal computers, laptops and mobile phones. In some developing countries, electronic equipment is entering the market at levels approaching those found in the industrialised world. Rapid technological development and dropping prices are largely responsible for this increase in the amount of equipment being bought, discarded and replaced. The resulting ‘novel’ waste, also known as electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) or e-waste, is the world’s fastest growing waste stream and makes up to five per cent of municipal solid waste. The UN estimates that some 20 to 50 million tons of e-waste is generated worldwide each year. Sustainable solutions for the appropriate recycling, treatment and disposal of e-waste hardly exist in any developing or emerging country particularly for the hazardous fractions of equipment. In the absence of sustainable management systems and clear national policies and regulations, it is at most the economically viable e-waste fractions that are recycled. The ‘worthless’ and sometimes hazardous components on the other hand often receive an inappropriate handling, thereby causing a risk to human health and the environment. In other words, there is an evident need to solve end-of-life management of computers and other electronic equipment, particularly in developing economies.

Switzerland: One step ahead

On one side there are developing countries that have just recently started to realise the extent of this

new waste management challenge; on the other, some industrialised countries have built up e-waste management systems. Switzerland, for example, has established one of the best systems in the world over the last two decades. A specific legal framework for e-waste management was introduced in 1998, when the ‘Ordinance on the Return, the taking back and the Disposal of Electrical and Electronic Equipment’ (ORDEE) came into force. However, the first attempts were started voluntarily based on private and industry initiatives, and the system covers the entire range of electrical and electronic consumer products. e-Waste management in Switzerland is organised in a way that it is simple, convenient and self financing with clearly defined roles and responsibilities, backed by transparent control and monitoring. The Swiss system additionally bans certain waste exports to non-OECD countries for recycling.

            Switzerland’s head start over other industrialised neighbors led the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs in 2003 (SECO) to launch the international e-waste program, Knowledge Partnerships in e-waste Recycling, implemented by the Swiss Federal Laboratory for Material Testing and Research (Empa). In close cooperation with relevant stakeholders from industry, government and NGOs, the program is supporting the establishment of sound e-waste management systems in many countries around the globe. In several countries, substantial improvements in e-waste management have been made as a direct or indirect outcome of the program. In China the program supported the development of a national e-waste law and technical standards, which will now be translated into operable e-waste systems in the cities of Hangzhou and Qingdao. In India the cooperation led to the foundation of a national e-waste strategy group, which currently is developing a producer responsibility concept and the establishment of the first Clean e-waste Channels in Bangalore and Delhi. In South Africa the project resulted in the creation of the e-waste Association South Africa, out of which the South African IT Association (ITA) launched an initiative to establish a Producer Responsible Organisation by the end of last year.

            Empa’s current activities in several African and Latin American countries are intended to launch pilot projects in the different project countries, each with one or several points of focus. These may include: elaborating policy and common standards; designing financing models to pay for sustainable recycling of all e-waste fractions; developing appropriate models to access and collect waste streams; ascertaining the appropriate level of technology; providing technology transfer and business partnerships with international recyclers; and developing the best organisational framework to ensure the system supports local innovation and helps to forge international partnerships.

NIMBY (Not In My BackYard)

Even though many industrialised countries have management systems similar to the Swiss model, the fate of large quantities of this e-waste stream is unknown. This e-waste’s ‘hidden flow’ is that which escapes responsible collection, reuse and recycling systems and as such is unaccounted for. While some might be found stored in attics, garages and office buildings or disposed alongside solid waste in landfills and incinerators, thousands of discarded electrical and electronic appliances are exported, often illegally, for dumping or rudimentary recovery by informal recyclers to the developing world (Greenpeace, 2008). In other words, rich countries often legally or illegally divert this problem from their own backyards. The e-waste that flows out of these exports, in addition to increasing quantities of locally generated WEEE, causes environmental damage in these poorer, recipient countries.

            But this is only one of the many

impacts that e-waste recycling can

have on a global scale. Formal recycling of e-waste in developing countries, mostly limited to a professional disassembly, is an emerging activity. In many countries, traditional metal recycling companies have discovered the e-waste recycling market. Discarded materials are still processed on a modest level, since neither the political frame-work nor the logistical infrastructure allows for larger quantities to be processed. But manual dismantling of e-waste offers good job opportunities for low- and medium- skilled laborers given proper training and access to necessary and affordable technologies. Still, many technical and managerial challenges lie ahead, since most recycling formal or informal concentrates on valuable components, like printed circuit boards and copper coils, and overlooks the proper disposal of components like Cathode Ray Tubes (CRT), plastic casings with flame retardants, or other components which have a negative economic value but pose a potential environmental or health risk.

R like responsibility, redesign, reuse and recycling?

In a modern cell phone, you find over 60 different metals, more than half those represented on the periodic table of elements. Many substances bear exotic names, such as Tantalum or Palladium and are used only in microscopically small amounts for each device. In principle, the sum of all our electronic equipment represents an extremely fragmented raw materials’ stock. Annual global cell phone production consumes around 31 tons of gold. Four per cent of global annual gold mining ends up in cell phones and computers.

            This need for strategic metals like gold in the production of new technologies has forced a realignment of priorities in the world of e-waste recycling. When Switzerland and other industrialised countries first thought about recycling electronic equipment in the early 1990s, their main concern was to prevent environmental damage; nowadays their focus lies with the recovery of so-called ‘secondary resources,’ materials that are mined from a manmade source like a building or disposed product. As such, ‘recycling’ no longer constitutes the simple collection of paper and cardboard but involves the harvesting of scarce and valuable resources that are needed for the future production of new technologies.

            This paradigmatic shift in combination with rapidly increasing global quantities of e-waste make it imperative to also address the question of responsibility for sustainable future solutions. The most important concept, on which almost all existing management systems are based, is the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR). EPR as a policy strategy was first proposed by Thomas Lindhqvist in 1988 and formally introduced by the Swedish Ministry of Environment in 1990. It is defined as an environmental protection strategy to reach an environmental objective of a decreased total impact from a product, by making the manufacturer responsible for the entire life cycle of the product and especially for the take back, recycling and final disposal. Unfortunately, the same companies that successfully apply EPR in many western countries are still hesitant to take the lead in less developed economies.

            The four principal goals of EPR, as stated by the OECD, are natural resource conservation, waste prevention, design of more environmentally compatible products and closing of material loops to promote sustainable development. Looking at currents situations in developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America, it seems quite clear that the principle of EPR needs to be at the core of any measures to address the e-waste problem, particularly in the developing world in order to prevent the negative impacts of improper e-waste recycling activities and assure that valuable and scarce resources find their way back into the cycle.


By Daniel Ott

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