Rising pollution and associated health problems caused by the disposal of hazardous electronic waste (e-waste), and a squandering of the reusable natural resources contained in e-waste, are a growing global concern. As noted in last year’s Our World 2.0 article “E-waste: Not your normal trash”, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has estimated that only about 5% of the more than 40 million tonnes of annual global e-waste is being recovered.
As part of a move aimed at stepping up international efforts to curb the improper disposal of e-waste, the US EPA has awarded a five-year, $2.5 million grant to the UNU Institute for Sustainability and Peace (UNU-ISP). The grant is aimed at helping authorities to track shipments of North American e-waste, including end-of-life computers, TVs and cell phones, and to support African and Asian nations in coping with imports of these e-waste products.
“All too often, unwanted electronics wind up among regular household trash, leading to health-threatening incineration or wasteful land-filling,” noted UNU Rector Konrad Osterwalder. “We are honored to partner with the US EPA to advance research, share knowledge and promote innovative approaches to solving the e-waste problem in developed and developing countries alike.”
In conjunction with the grant, the EPA will collaborate with members of the UNU-led Solving the E-Waste Problem (StEP) initiative — which is based at the UNU-ISP Sustainable Cycles (SCYCLE) operating unit in Bonn, Germany — on ways to improve the recycling and final disposal of electronic products. The StEP initiative comprises more than 50 stakeholders from industry, academia, government, nongovernmental organizations and civil society, including the Secretariat of the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal.
Recovery of the many valuable, and in some cases critical, metals in e-waste — such as indium, palladium and cobalt — could be boosted by better end-of-life management. Expert estimates suggest that the proper recycling of 1 million cell phones can recover some 9 kg of palladium, 24 kg of gold, 250 kg of silver and more than 9,000 kg of copper. Yet despite these potential benefits from recycling, e-waste is the fastest-growing sector of the US waste stream, prompting the US EPA to accord top priority to the handling of used electronics and e-waste.
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“The electronics that improve our everyday lives often end up discarded in developing countries, where improper disposal can threaten local people and the environment. EPA recognizes this urgent concern and is committed to working with domestic and international partners, such as UN University’s StEP Initiative, to address issues related to e-waste, ” said Michelle DePass, US EPA Assistant Administrator for the Office of International and Tribal Affairs.
Objectives under the EPA’S five-year agreement with UNU include:
Initial plans call for collaboration with port officials in West Africa and Asia to support the objectives of characterizing flows of used electronics and harmonizing international information.
“In learning to manage e-waste, we need to reflect many inter-connected socio-economic and environmental factors, such as the impact of today’s economic crisis and digital divide issues, and to promote closed-loop, resource-circular societies,” said UNU Vice-Rector Kazuhiko Takeuchi, who also serves as Director of UNU-ISP. “These cooperation development activities led by the UNU co-founded StEP initiative will help developing countries find their own way to globally sound e-waste management.”