Ever wonder what happens to discarded televisions and obsolete home computers, or do you prefer not to think about it? According to a United Nations study on recycling, the volume of disused electronic products, or “e-waste” as it is known, has risen dramatically in-line with growth in sales in developing countries such as China, India, Africa and Latin America. By 2020, the alarming rate at which e-waste will have accumulated will have grown by as much as 500 per cent in some nations. To minimize the impact such a statistic will have on public health and the environment, the study calls for new recycling technologies and regulations to be implemented to safeguard against the hazardous by products of e-waste.

Outdated computers, mobile phones, printers, pagers, digital photo and music devices, refrigerators, toys and televisions are just several of the items at the top of the e-waste heap. The issue has long been recognized in developing countries as various programs to combat it would suggest.

According to the report, “Recycling—from E-waste to Resources,” issued by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and presented at a meeting between hazardous wastes experts in Bali, Indonesia, e-waste from old computers will have increased by 500 per cent over a ten-year period from 2007 in India, and by 200 to 400 per cent in South Africa and China. E-waste created by mobile phones will be seven times greater in China and 18 times greater in India.

China produces about 2.3 million tonnes of domestic e-waste each year. It seems to be considered a dumping ground for developed countries and has banned e-waste imports. This statistic is second only to the United States, which produces about 3 million tonnes.

Further compounding the issue is the manner in which current disposal practices are handled. In China, informal cost-effective practices allow inexpert recyclers to incinerate e-waste to recover valuable metals including gold, silver, palladium, copper and indium. The result is the steady release of toxic pollution and a very low metal recovery yield compared to more regulated processes employed by state-of-the-art industrial facilities.

UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner argues that, “China is not alone in facing a serious challenge…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.”

The report indicates that, despite the daunting prospects posed by e-waste over the next decade, there is a “new urgency to establishing ambitious, formal and regulated processes for collecting and managing e-waste.” It recommends that countries establish e-waste management centers of excellence, noting a successful pilot in Bangalore, India, to transform informal e-waste collection and management. Nations such as Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Morocco and South Africa are cited as places with great potential to introduce e-waste recycling technologies, such as manual dismantling of e-waste, because the informal e-waste sector is relatively small. Other countries such as Kenya, Peru, Senegal and Uganda where e-waste is relative low but likely to rise would benefit from capacity building.

Steiner also argues that with immediate action and forward planning improved e-waste recycling technologies in developing countries can “generate decent employment, cut greenhouse gas emissions and recover a wide range of valuable materials…[turning] an e-challenge into an e-opportunity.”

As the saying goes, one person’s trash is another person’s treasure. Konrad Osterwalder, Rector of the UN University (UNU) echoes the sentiment, stating that, “smart new technologies…combined with national and international policies, can transform waste into assets, creating new businesses with decent green jobs.”