UN warns India and China over growing problem of e-waste

A computer on fire
Many major PC manufacturers have backtracked on pledges to remove dangerous toxic substances from their computers

Consumer electronic sales are predicted to increase sharply in both India and China over the next decade

African and Asian countries need proper electronic waste recycling systems to prevent the surge in consumer demand creating toxic e-waste mountains

Less-industrialised countries like India, Uganda and Senegal face a mounting hazardous e-waste problem unless proper recycling measures are enforced, says the UN.

Sales of consumer electronics, particularly mobile phones and computers, have soared in the past two decades. In 2007, one billion mobile phones were sold, up from a figure of 896 million in 2006.

A report on e-waste from the UN Environment Programme says China and India are expected to see sharp rises in electronics sales over the next decade, contributing to an e-waste mountain growing by 40 million tons a year.

E-waste dumping

The UNEP says e-waste cannot be left 'to the vagaries of the informal sector'. It says large-scale collection and recycling facilities need to be established in China, India, Brazil and Africa where levels of e-waste are rising.

The Ecologist reported recently on the dumping of Western electronic waste in Ghanaian slums and the damage to the local population and environment caused by some of the toxic components.

The UNEP report says countries like Senegal and Uganda can expect e-waste flows from PCs alone to increase 4 to 8-fold by 2020.

China and India

At present the problem is most acute in India and China, which together produce more than 1.5 million tonnes of e-waste from TVs and 600,000 tonnes from refrigerators every year.

In China, the report predicts that by 2020 levels of e-waste from old computers will have increased by 200 to 400 per cent from 2007 levels, and by 500 per cent in India.

By that same year in China, e-waste from discarded mobile phones will be about seven times higher than 2007 levels and, in India, 18 times higher.

But the UNEP says recycling can also recover valuable natural resources.

'In addition to curbing health problems, boosting developing country e-waste recycling rates can have the potential to generate decent employment and recover a wide range of valuable metals including silver, gold, palladium, copper and indium,' said UN Under-Secretary-General Achim Steiner, Executive Director of UNEP.

'By acting now and planning forward, many countries can turn an e-challenge into an e-opportunity,' he added.

Useful links

Full UNEP report on e-waste

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