Millions of mobile phones, laptops, tablets, toys, digital cameras and other electronic devices bought this Christmas are destined to create a flood of dangerous “e-waste” that is being dumped illegally in developing countries, the UN has warned.
The global volume of electronic waste is expected to grow by 33 percent in the next four years, according to the UN’s Step initiative, which was set up to tackle the growing e-waste crisis. Last year, nearly 50m tonnes of e-waste was generated worldwide — or about 7kg for every person on the planet. These are electronic goods containing toxic substances, such as lead, mercury, cadmium, arsenic and flame retardants. An old-style CRT computer screen can contain up to 3kg of lead, for example.
Once in landfill, these toxic materials seep out, contaminating land, water and the air. In addition, devices are often dismantled in primitive conditions. Those who work at these sites suffer frequent bouts of illness.
An indication of the level of e-waste being shipped to the developing world was revealed by Interpol last week. It said almost one in three containers leaving the EU that were checked by its agents contained illegal e-waste. Criminal investigations were launched against 40 companies.
“Christmas will see a surge in sales and waste around the world,” says Ruediger Kuehr, executive secretary of Step. “The explosion is happening because there’s so much technical innovation. TVs, mobile phones and computers are all being replaced more quickly. The lifetime of products is also shortening.”
According to the Step report, e-waste — which extends from old fridges to toys and even motorized toothbrushes — is now the world’s fastest growing waste stream. China generated 11.1 million tonnes last year, followed by the US with 10 million tonnes, though there was significant difference per capita. For example, on average each American generated 29.5kg, compared to less than 5kg per person in China.
By 2017, Kuehr expects the volume of end-of-life TVs, phones, computers, monitors, e-toys and other products to be enough to fill a 24,140km line of 40-tonne trucks. Although it is legal to export discarded goods to poor countries if they can be reused or refurbished, much is being sent to Africa or Asia under false pretenses, Interpol says.
“Much is falsely classified as ‘used goods’ although in reality it is non-functional. It is often diverted to the black market and disguised as used goods to avoid the costs associated with legitimate recycling,” a spokesman said.