Ongoing growth in volumes and disposal rates of electronic waste and scrap pose consumers, governments and industry with a growing threat to environmental health and safety. In its 2002 report “Exporting Harm,” the Seattle arm of the Basel Action Network revealed that about 80 percent of electronic waste brought to recyclers in the US is in fact not recycled here but exported to Asia, most likely China, where “it is melted down in primitive, environmentally damaging conditions including the cooking and melting of computer circuit boards in vast quantity.”
Five years on, governments, international organizations and IT industry leaders are now coming together to address what is a complex and intricate problem. In March, United Nations University, United Nations Environment Program, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development and a host of government agencies and leading electronics industry participants established the Solving the E-Waste Problem (StEP) program, a global private-public sector cooperative that aims to “help shape government policies worldwide and address issues related to redesign and product life expectancy, reuse and recycling, and help build relevant capacity in developing nations.”
Consumers need to get on board. We are throwing away electronics at unprecedented rates. The US EPA estimates that only 12.5%, or 330,000 pounds, of the 2.63 million tons of e-waste disposed of in the US in 2005 was recovered for recycling. The other 87.5% wound up in landfills or was incinerated, posing environmental and human health risks as well as wasting a lot of increasingly costly, potentially recoverable metals and other materials.
A Mounting Problem
“E-scrap is one of the fastest growing components of the global waste stream and, arguably, one of the most troublesome,” according to StEP. According to European Environmental Agency research, e-scrap volumes are rising roughly three times faster than other forms of municipal waste. The agency calculates that total will soon reach approximately 40 million metric tons – “enough to fill a line of dump trucks halfway around the world.”
Moreover, producing the desktop, laptop and notebook PCs we have quickly come to love and rely on is an extremely materials and energy intensive business. “[An] average 24-kg (53-lb) desktop computer with monitor requires at least 10 times its weight in fossil fuels and chemicals to manufacture. This is much more materials-intensive than for the manufacture of an automobile or refrigerator, which only require 1 – 2 times their weight in fossil fuels,” according to Computers and the Environment, a 2004 book release co-authored by UNU professor Ruediger Kuehr.
The rapid electronic product innovation that characterizes the electronics industry and we as consumers have adapted to and have come to expect is driving up e-waste volume, according to Kuehr. This is particularly the case when it comes to ICT (Information and Communications Technology) and office equipment, as evidenced in the ongoing migration from analog to digital technologies and to flat-screen TVs and monitors.
“In 2004, one-half of German households were equipped with a personal computer, a figure that jumped to three-quarters by the end of 2006. The same 75 percent rate also applies to households in Japan (compared with just .07 percent in Niger, 1.2 percent in India, 2.3 percent in Bolivia and 4.1 percent in China). The sale of electronic products market is expected to continue growing in developing markets and industrialized ones, where there is a rising tendency to own more than one computer, telephone etc.,” Kuehr noted.
Building Links to Close the Loop
Links between participants – from manufacturer through to consumer – are well-established on the consumption side of the electronics value chain and product life cycle. That’s not the case on the obverse side, which begins with consumers disposing of their purchases.
“Collectively, the role of consumers is enormously important to the world environment, whether purchasing, using or disposing of electronic equipment,” stated Itaru Yasui, UNU vice-rector (Environment and Sustainable Development). “Buying refurbished equipment, selling or donating unwanted equipment and finally recycling as a last step are among the choices we hope consumers will make more often. The StEP initiative is designed to make those choices easier.”
“The efficient, cost-effective and environmentally-sound recovery of metals from complex electronic components requires large-scale, high tech processes,” added Hugo Morel, executive vice president of Umicore Precious Metals Services, a charter StEP member that specializes in recycling and recovery of precious, specialty and base metals. “As well, the collection, sorting, dismantling and pre-processing of electronic devices require trained labor and offers many job opportunities worldwide.
“We strongly support the StEP initiative as a way to foster cooperation among stakeholders, develop needed infrastructure at a global scale, optimize interfaces between manual, mechanical and metallurgical recycling and recovery processes, and minimize the environmental burden created by e-scrap.”