UN Releases Report on Growth in Electronic Scrap

Report forecasts sharp increase in cell phones, gadgets, appliances in China, India, elsewhere.

February 23, 2010

A report released by the United Nations (UN) notes that sales of electronic products in countries like China and India, and across continents such as Africa and Latin America, are set to rise sharply in the next 10 years. And, unless action is stepped up to properly collect and recycle materials, many developing countries face challenges in how they handle this material. One potential result is the possibility of environmental and public health problems, according to the UN.


The report, titled, “Recycling – from E-Waste to Resources”, was released at the most recent meeting of the Basel Convention and other world chemical authorities prior to the UN Environmental Programme's (UNEP) Governing Council meeting in Bali, Indonesia. The report uses data from 11 representative developing countries to estimate current and future electronic scrap generation.


In South Africa and China for example, the report predicts that by 2020 electronic scrap from old computers will increase by 200 to 400 percent over 2007 levels. In India, the increase will be around 500 percent. By that same year, in China, electronic scrap from discarded mobile phones will be about 7 times higher than 2007 levels; in India, it will be 18 times higher.


By 2020, electronic scrap from televisions will be 1.5 to 2 times higher in China and India, while in India electronic scrap from discarded refrigerators will double or triple, according to the report.


China already produces about 2.3 million metric tons of electronic scrap domestically, second only to the United States, which produces about 3 million metric tons. And, despite having banned electronic scrap imports, China remains a major importer of used electronic scrap from developed countries.


The UN contends that electronic scrap in China continues to be improperly handled, such as being incinerated by ad hoc recyclers to recover precious metals like gold. Such practices can emit toxic pollution and yield very low metal recovery rates compared with better capitalized industrial facilities.


"This report gives new urgency to establishing ambitious, formal and regulated processes for collecting and managing electronic scrap via the setting up of large, efficient facilities in China," says UN Under-Secretary-General Achim Steiner, executive director of UNEP. "China is not alone in facing a serious challenge. India, Brazil, Mexico and others may also face rising environmental damage and health problems if electronic scrap recycling is left to the vagaries of the informal sector.”


"In addition to curbing health problems, boosting developing country electronic scrap recycling rates can have the potential to generate decent employment, cut greenhouse gas emissions and recover a wide range of valuable metals including silver, gold, palladium, copper and indium - by acting now and planning forward many countries can turn an e-challenge into an e-opportunity," Steiner adds.


The report was issued at the Simultaneous Extraordinary Meetings of the Conferences of the Parties to the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions on enhancing their cooperation and coordination.

It was co-authored by the Swiss EMPA, Umicore and United Nations University (UNU), part of the global think tank Solving the Electronic Scrap Problem, which includes UNEP and Basel Convention Secretariat among its more than 50 members.


The report cites a variety of sources to illustrate growth of the electronic scrap problem:

·                     Global electronic scrap generation is growing by about 40 million tons per year

·                     Manufacturing mobile phones and personal computers consumes 3 percent of the gold and silver mined worldwide each year; 13 percent of the palladium and 15 percent of cobalt

·                     Modern electronics contain up to 60 different elements - many valuable, some hazardous, and some both

·                     Carbon dioxide emissions from the mining and production of copper and precious and rare metals used in electrical and electronic equipment are estimated at more than 23 million metric tons - 0.1 percent of global emissions (not including emissions linked to steel, nickel or aluminum, nor those linked to manufacturing the devices)

·                     In the US, more than 150 million mobiles and pagers were sold in 2008, up from 90 million five years before

·                     Globally, more than 1 billion mobile phones were sold in 2007, up from 896 million in 2006


Given the infrastructure, expense and technology skills required to create proper facilities for efficient and environmentally sound metal recovery, the report suggests facilitating exports of critical e-scrap fractions like circuit boards or batteries from smaller countries to OECD-level, certified end-processors.


Konrad Osterwalder, UN under-secretary general and rector of UNU, says, "One person's waste can be another's raw material. The challenge of dealing with electronic scrap 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."


Broken down by type, the report estimates electronic scrap generation today as follows:


China: 500,000 metric tons from refrigerators, 1.3 million metric tons from televisions, 300,000 metric tons from personal computers


India: more than 100,000 metric tons from refrigerators, 275,000 metric tons from televisions, 56,300 metric tons from personal computers, 4,700 metric tons from printers and 1,700 metric tons from mobile phones


Colombia: about 9,000 metric tons from refrigerators, more than 18,000 metric tons from televisions, 6,500 metric tons from personal computers, 1,300 metric tons from printers, 1,200 metric tons from mobile phones


Kenya: 11,400 metric tons from refrigerators, 2,800 metric tons from televisions, 2,500 metric tons from personal computers, 500 metric tons from printers, 150 metric tons from mobile phones


The report also includes data on per capita sales of electrical and electronic goods. For example South Africa and Mexico lead in personal computer sales with the equivalent of 24 sold per 1,000 people. Brazil, Mexico and Senegal generate more electronic scrap per capita from personal computers than the other countries surveyed.


Going forward, the report points out that developing vibrant national recycling schemes is complex and simply financing and transferring high tech equipment from developed countries is unlikely to work.


It says China's lack of a comprehensive electronic scrap collection network, combined with competition from the lower-cost informal sector, has held back state-of-the art electronic scrap recycling plants.

It also notes a successful pilot in Bangalore, India, to transform the operations of informal electronic scrap collection and management.


Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Morocco and South Africa are cited as places with great potential to introduce state-of-the-art electronic scrap recycling technologies because the informal electronic scrap sector is relatively small.


Kenya, Peru, Senegal and Uganda have relatively low electronic scrap volumes today, but are likely to grow. All four would benefit from capacity building in so-called pre-processing technologies such as manual dismantling of electronic scrap.


The report recommends countries establish electronic scrap management centers of excellence, building on existing organizations working in the area of recycling and waste management.