Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Global Outlook on the E-Waste Recycling Industry

Global technological innovations occurring around the world has revolutionized the modern society in unthinkable ways. The increasing demand for new and improved electronic products each day has, in turn, led to the birth of electronic waste or e-waste. Only a small percentage of e-waste is recycled worldwide while a large percentage ends up in landfills, or worse, trash cans, resulting in an increase of radiation exposure.

According to a report by UNEP, around 20 to 50 million metric tonnes of e-waste is generated worldwide every year.  In 2005, it was estimated that waste electronic equipment constitutes about 8 per cent of municipal waste in developed countries and is one of the fastest growing waste components. Computers, mobile phones and television contributed to 5.5 million tonnes in 2010 and this is estimated to increase to 10 million metric tonnes by 2015. According to this report, very less information or no data is available from most of the African, Latin American and the Middle Eastern countries. This may be due to the absence of proper waste management systems, lack of awareness about health hazards from e-waste or insufficient resources. 

This report further stated that more than 90 per cent of discarded computers of the developed world are exported to the developing countries like China, Ghana, Pakistan and India, purportedly for recycling. Most of them end up in toxic wastelands where the heavy metals and toxic chemicals are released into the atmosphere.

But the recent e-waste trends are taking a new turn and challenging the existing paradigm. Developing countries are now shipping more e-waste by weight to developed countries than vice versa, according to a recent analysis of United Nations trade data by Josh Lepawsky, an expert on the electronic waste trade.

Since 2003, Empa, having gained experience in Switzerland, has been working on dozens of e-waste projects in Africa, Asia and Latin and South America. The ultimate aim of these projects and programmes is the improvement of living conditions for local residents based on better managed e-waste streams, resource protection, reduced health risks and an improved economic situation.

Growing number of businesses often backed by international donors and lenders, are now exploring ways to create incentives for informal collectors to sell e-waste to formal recycling operations. German Society for International Cooperation has supported an Indian company named e-WaRDD that has piloted a project to incentivize circuit-board collection in Bengaluru, India. Belgium-based non-profit, WorldLoop, receives corporate funding to support a range of electronics recycling programs in Africa that link informal recyclers with state-of-the-art facilities overseas that recycle printed circuit boards, transformers and leaded glass. In 2012, Cleanlites, a recycling company based in the U.S.A., was able to recycle nearly 500,000 pounds of electronic waste.

Manufacturers in China, India and many other low- and middle-income countries are not far behind. They are increasingly viewing e-scrap as a valuable commodity — both for extracting metals and for manufacturing new devices from a product's component parts. That is partly because the value of e-waste has increased in recent years with rising demand in laptops, cellular phones and other electronic devices. It is worth mentioning that policies encouraging sustainable "harvesting" of e-waste resources already exist in Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea, according to Michael Biddle, president of the California-based plastics recycler MBA Polymers, which has a facility in China.

The e-waste recycling industry scenario is slowly and gradually changing but with staggering amounts of e-waste increasing each year, sure-shot reforms is the need of the hour. Measures like cradle-to-cradle policy by manufacturers and organizations can provide environmental solution to a great extent. Another measure can be by making manufacturers responsible for recycling or safe disposal of their products at the end of their useful lives.

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