Developing countries face increasing environmental and health hazards from electronic waste unless toxic materials are collected and recycled properly, according to a United Nations report released on Monday.
The report highlights the problem of recycling and salvaging procedures in poorer countries, often in unsafe conditions by unregulated operators. Sales of electronic devices are set to rise sharply in the next 10 years, particularly in emerging economies such as China and India, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) said.
According to report, titled Recycling - from E-Waste to Resources, the world produces about 40 million tons of waste from electronic devices, known as e-waste, every year.
“Managing this waste has become not just important, it has become absolutely urgent,” UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner said at a news conference.
Experts said exposure to toxic chemicals from e-waste - including lead, cadmium, mercury, chromium and polybrominated biphenyls - can damage the brain and nervous system, affect the kidneys and liver, and cause birth defects.
The report was launched in Indonesia’s resort island of Bali where environment ministers from more than 100 countries are due to meet from Wednesday through Friday.
It used data from 11 developing countries to estimate current and future e-waste generation from discarded computers, printers, mobile phones, pagers, cameras, music players, refrigerators, toys, televisions and other items.
China produces an estimated 2.3 million tons of e-waste annually, and though the country has banned e-waste imports, it remains a major dumping ground for waste from developed countries, the report said.
The UN research predicts that in South Africa and China, e-waste from old computers may jump by 200 to 400 per cent from 2007 levels and by 500 per cent in India.
E-waste from mobile phones in the same period is forecast to rise seven times in China, and 18 times in India.
According to the report, over 1 billion mobile phones were sold in 2007 worldwide, up from 896 million in 2006.
The report said most e-waste in China was improperly handled, with much of it incinerated by backyard recyclers to recover valuable metals like gold.
Jim Pucket of the Basel Action Network, a non-governmental organization fighting the international trade in toxic wastes, said massive amounts of discarded devices had been exported to China for years.
Pucket said in one area of China’s Guandong province, people had been “treating information-age materials with stone-age technology.” “That’s happening to this day, every day and the problem is getting worse,” he said.
But China is not alone in facing the serious e-waste problem, Steiner 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,” he said.
Konrad Osterwalder, UN under-secretary general and rector of the United Nations University, said solving e-waste problems represented 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,” he said developing 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 urged governments to establish e-waste management centres, building on existing organizations working in the area of recycling and waste management.