E-waste is one of the fastest growing waste streams in developed as well as in developing countries. Due to the fact that the life span of computers has dropped in developed countries from six years in 1997 to just two years in 2005, and mobile phones have a lifespan of even less than two years, the amount of generated e-waste per year grows rapidly. This has a major impact on developing countries as loopholes in the current Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directives allow the export of e-waste from developed to developing countries (70% of the collected WEEE ends up in unreported and largely unknown destinations). Inappropriate methods like open burning, which are often used by the informal sector in developing countries to recover valuable materials, have heavy impacts on human health and the environment. Harmful emissions of hazardous substances mainly come from:
- the product itself (if landfilled): Lead in circuit boards or cathode ray tube (CRT) glass, mercury in liquid crystal display (LCD) backlights
- substandard processes: Dioxin formation during burning of halogenated plastics or use of smelting processes without suitable off-gas treatment
- reagents used in the recycling process: cyanide and other strong leaching acids, nitrogen oxides (NOx) gas from leaching processes and mercury from amalgamation
To mainstream and disseminate environmentally sound management of e-waste in developing countries, the work plan for the focal area on e-waste proposes to develop sustainable business plans which will include an effective take-back system, a manual dismantling facility, local pre-processing activities and sound end-processing activities. These activities will be undertaken in close cooperation with other partners working in this field.
The focal area on e-waste is led by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO).