Nº 9 2011 > News

E-waste: Whose responsibility?

Who can resist the appeal of a sleek new electronic toy? But what happens to the clunky phones, slow computers and bulky television sets that we discard? Electronic devices that run information and communication technologies (ICT) have penetrated every aspect of modern life. When they are no longer wanted, they become what we call in this article “e-waste”.

E-waste: Whose responsibility?E-waste: Whose responsibility?E-waste: Whose responsibility?

In the industrialized world, e‑waste is end-of-life ICT equipment, which may still be in working order. From a developing country perspective, it can offer an affordable way to join the information society. The green mantra — reduce, reuse, recycle — should point the way to a sustainable e‑ecosystem. But the reality is somewhat different, as we shall see.

The story of Agbogbloshie

Agbogbloshie is a slum that lies on the outskirts of Accra, the capital of Ghana. Functional second-hand computers began arriving in Agbogbloshie from industrialized countries “to help bridge the digital divide”. At one-tenth of the cost of a new computer, Ghanaians welcomed this donated equipment.

But as the volume of e‑waste increased in industrialized countries — where there are strict laws controlling its disposal — the once benevolent act of donating used computers became corrupted. Outdated, broken and unusable electronics started to be exported to Ghana in mass quantities. What had been an ad hoc development project slipped into a scheme for companies to get around national regulations. By shipping unregulated “donations”, they had found a cheap way of getting rid of e‑waste.

Agbogbloshie is now one of Ghana’s largest e‑waste dumps, with mountains of abandoned motherboards, computer monitors and hard drives littering the landscape. The soil and water have high concentrations of lead, mercury, thallium, hydrogen cyanide and polyvinyl chloride. Amid black smoke and the stench of burning plastic, living conditions are harsh and hazardous.

A cyber-age nightmare

Unmarked shipments containing electronic waste make their way to Asia, Africa (particularly West Africa) and other parts of the world that lack the capacity to prevent illegal imports or to safely recycle electronics. These digital dumping grounds are located primarily in Ghana, Nigeria, Pakistan, India and China. For example, an estimated 500 containers, each 40 feet long, are shipped to Lagos, Nigeria, every month. Although Lagos has a robust market for repairing and refurbishing old electronic equipment (including computers, monitors, televisions and mobile phones), local experts complain that three-quarters of the imports are useless “junk”.

Because of the use of toxic materials in the manufacture of electronic goods, e‑waste can cause widespread environmental damage. In developing countries, no special precautions are taken in handling and recycling the waste to avoid the known adverse effects. Informal recyclers — often children and women — handle the goods manually, without protective clothing or appropriate equipment. Exposure to heavy metals, toxic gases and plastic additives affect human health.

Exponential growth of e‑waste

Today, e‑waste is one of the fastest growing waste streams. According to “Recycling — from E‑Waste to Resources”, a report released by the United Nations Environment Programme in February 2010, China’s e‑waste from old computers will have jumped 200-400 per cent by 2020 from 2007 levels, and 500 per cent in India. Also, e‑waste from discarded mobile phones in China will be about 7 times higher by 2020 than the 2007 level, and 18 times higher in India.

In the United States in 2007, Americans owned almost 3 billion electronic products. The United States is one of the largest producers of e‑waste in the world. In 2005, approximately 61 per cent or 107 500 tonnes of the cathode ray tubes, monitors and televisions collected for recycling were exported for “remanufacture and refurbishment”. But there is now a lack of basic data on shipments of electronics from the United States to other countries. In the United Kingdom, an average person is likely to consume three tonnes of electrical and electronic equipment in their lifetime.

Paradoxically, it is the success of telecommunications and ICT that has spurred the increase in e‑waste. New devices are needed, for example, because of the transition from analogue to digital terrestrial television, the migration from second generation mobile communication networks to third generation (and soon fourth generation) networks, and — in the computing and information sub-sector — the demand for equipment with faster processing speed, larger memory and thinner (liquid crystal or thin film technology) display units.

Commercial opportunity

Modern electronic equipment may contain up to 60 different chemical elements, some of which are metals such as gold and copper. Despite legislative efforts in the developed countries to “mine” these valuable resources from e‑waste, the majority of these resources are lost. Effective recycling to obtain these metals and other reusable materials would make them available for the manufacture of new products.

Recycling can be commercially viable, as is shown by the example of an e‑waste treatment facility established by Hewlett Packard in Cape Town, South Africa. In 2008, the facility processed approximately 60 tonnes of electronic equipment, generated about USD 14 000, and employed 19 people. Workers refurbished and resold some products, and dismantled others to sell the raw materials to businesses that recycle metals and plastics. They also made jewelry out of some of the processors and boards.

Policy responses

Privatization and liberalization of the ICT sector in many regions of the world has opened up new platforms for the delivery of services to citizens. This has been particularly evident in developing countries where, for example, mobile phones have been used innovatively to deliver educational, agricultural and financial services.

Governments of developing countries have responded by adopting policies to increase access to ICT. For example, the Government of Kenya in its 2009/2010 budget reduced the cost of mobile phones and other ICT equipment and related components by eliminating sales tax and import duty. Over the same period, the Government of Mauritius offered corporate tax exemption (either 0 per cent in the first year and 15 per cent thereafter, or 5 per cent in perpetuity), no customs duty on ICT equipment, 50 per cent tax relief on personal income tax for foreign information technology specialists, and refunds of up to 75 per cent of training costs. ICT companies continue to seek tax incentives in Singapore, arguing that this would foster an environment conducive to the establishment of overseas markets.

These well-meant efforts to expand markets eventually lead to increased e‑waste downstream. Fiscal incentives to promote recycling would help to achieve a balance.

At the international level, laxity in enforcement of regulatory requirements on movement of e‑waste leads to the export of e‑waste from one jurisdiction to another. The exporting jurisdiction does this in order to benefit from cheaper labour and lax standards in the recipient jurisdiction.

An effective e‑waste ecosystem must stand the scrutiny of environment, health and safety standards. This would involve detection and measurement of emissions into air, water and soil, as well as safety and protection for workers involved in this industry.

Industry responses

Nokia is involved in take-back schemes in the European Union, Australia, parts of Latin America and Asia. In 2006 around 500 Nokia Care Points in China started to collect used phones, with China Mobile offering prepaid cards as an incentive to recycle. The scheme collected over 80 tonnes of electrical materials and has now been extended to cover 11 Nokia suppliers in China.

Samsung Electronics has developed voluntary take-back programmes for its products at the end of their working lives in North America, Europe and Asia. This responsibility includes ensuring that all collected products are recycled in the most efficient way to minimize the volume of unrecoverable materials and maximize the usable materials.

To be recycled, e‑waste must first be collected. The lack of a collection system is a significant factor leading to e‑waste being stock-piled in homes, offices and repair shops. Another factor is consumer behaviour. A global consumer survey by Nokia in 2008 revealed that only 3 per cent of people participate in recycling, so the majority of old mobile phones are lying in drawers at home. This points to the need both to create awareness and to offer incentives.

Civil society pressure

Greenpeace assesses electronics companies in terms of their green credentials. In Version 17 of its “Guide to Greener Electronics”, Greenpeace demands that electronics companies: reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, through energy efficiency and the use of renewable energy; clean up their products by eliminating hazardous substances; take-back and recycle their products responsibly once they become obsolete; and stop the use of unsustainable materials in their products and packaging.

Implementing the international standard

The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal, which came into force in 1992, is the most comprehensive global environmental agreement on hazardous and other wastes. But many developing countries have not successfully translated its provisions into their national legislation.

At regional level, the Durban Declaration on e‑waste management in Africa was the outcome of an e‑waste workshop held during WasteCon 2008 in Durban, South Africa. Based on the experiences of Kenya, Morocco, Senegal, South Africa and Uganda, it recognizes the need to escalate awareness among stakeholders about the environmental and health hazards associated with the recycling and disposal of e‑waste. It also recognizes the need for every country in Africa to initiate its own internal process to define a road map to attain specific e‑waste management objectives. While this Declaration does not qualify as a multilateral agreement, it could drive a regional dialogue towards the implementation of best practice in e‑waste management.

A study by the United Nations Environment Programme analysing policy and legislative mechanisms to assess barriers for sustainable e‑waste management in eleven countries (South Africa, Kenya, Uganda, Morocco, Senegal, Peru, Colombia, Mexico, Brazil, India and China) showed that none of these countries — with the exception of China — has dedicated policy and legislative mechanisms to deal with e‑waste.

A role for ICT regulators?

The regulator in charge of promoting the use of ICT could be a critical actor in articulating policies and strategies for dealing with concerns arising from the end-of-life period of ICT gadgets and devices.

Because e‑waste is within the scope of environmental protection and cross-border trade, as well as ICT, various government departments are involved. In many African countries — for example, South Africa, Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe — there are different ministries or government departments dealing with ICT and with the environment. It is essential for there to be good collaboration among the related agencies to ensure that e‑waste has visibility on the political agenda, and that all actors work towards compliance with e‑waste governance requirements. The lack of a focal custodian means that there is no one agency dedicated to e‑waste, resulting in inertia, inordinate delays in formulating the much-needed regulatory frameworks, and lack of uniformity in enforcement.

In many countries, there is no dedicated legislation dealing with e‑waste. At best, the problem of e‑waste management is covered in disparate laws on the environment, water, air, health and safety, municipal waste and hazardous waste.

Government is ultimately responsible for enforcement through mandatory regulations that serve the purpose of controlling and monitoring, setting goals, and establishing enforcement rules.

The knowledge and expertise of ICT regulators could play a key role in shaping and driving the dialogue on e‑waste. The ICT regulator would also be able to ensure a responsible balance between the push for ICT access and the disposal of end-of-life ICT components and gadgets.

As Peter Madden and Ilka Weißbrod, authors of “Connected — ICT and sustainable development”, said, “If we develop and apply ICT badly, it could add to the world’s problems. It could devour energy and accelerate climate change, worsen inequality for those who do not have access and increase pollution and resource use by encouraging ever more frenetic consumerism. If we apply ICT well, the rewards could be enormous. It could help to enhance creativity and innovation to solve our problems, build communities, give more people access to goods and services and use precious resources much more efficiently. We have the capacity — through our decisions on how we produce, buy, use and apply ICT — to secure enormous social and economic benefits.”

In many developing countries, formal recognition of the informal activities that turn e‑waste into resources would strengthen these activities and help to protect the workers involved. Along with environmental monitoring, and health and safety measures, there could be tax breaks and other business incentives. This would enable the e‑waste management sector to fulfil its potential in creating jobs and alleviating poverty.

Creating awareness about the harmful effects of e‑waste will drive forward efforts to reduce, reuse and recycle e‑waste. By acting now, we can turn an e‑challenge into an e‑opportunity.


*This article is based on a Discussion paper for the 2011 Global Symposium for Regulators. The paper is entitled “E-waste and recycling: whose responsibility is it?” and is written by Mercy Wanjau, Principal Legal Officer, Communications Commission of Kenya. For more information, please visit: www.itu.int/ITU-D/treg/Events/Seminars/GSR/GSR11/documents.html

Celebrating ITU’s 150 Years

In this issue
No.6 November | December 2015

Pathway for smart sustainable cities:

A guide for city leaders

Pathway for smart sustainable cities|1

Meeting with the Secretary-General:

Official Visits

Meeting with the Secretary-General|1
Latest headlines

Boosting “SMEs” for ICT growth

What can governments do better?

A guide for city leaders

By Silvia Guzmán, Chairman, ITU Focus Group for Smart Sustainable Cities