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Electronic waste, the fastest growing waste stream in the world

18 June 2014, By Jonathan Clayton

From miles away great plumes of black acrid smoke mark the site of Sodom and Gomorrah, a sprawling dump on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital Accra. As one edges closer to the world’s fastest-growing e-waste dumping site at Agbogbloshie, it is the smell that hits hardest. A blend of burning rubber and chemicals clogs the nostrils, stings the eyes and hangs at the back of the throat.

Such dumps, fuelled by the world’s apparently insatiable desire for lap-tops, mobile phones, computers, microwave cookers and other electronic goods, have suddenly become a major new challenge for UNEP.

The huge global growth in such products has led to the creation of new e-dumps across the developing world where impoverished young children and adults strip down obsolete goods in the search of re-usable items with which to eke out a living.

It is a vast and growing market, put by some estimates at 50 million tonnes a year. Much of it is dumped in Ghana and Nigeria, where without proper regulation or health controls pieces can be extracted and recycled by unemployed youth. New dumps are also springing up in Latin America and Asia.

In the European Union, e-waste is the fastest growing waste stream with estimates of between 1 kg per person per annum and 20 kg per person per annum and increasing at about three times greater than normal municipal solid waste.

Some 22 per cent of the yearly world consumption of mercury is used in electronics manufacture.

In a recent joint reportUNEP and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime said that organised crime cartels, already active in drug smuggling in the region, were moving into the lucrative e-waste trade. The UN promised a coordinated approach in an attempt to keep it in check.

The report said: “Organised crime is attacking West Africa because of the intrinsic weaknesses of these countries - the result of poverty, the result of underdevelopment, the result of corruption.”

That underdevelopment is visible at the Agbogbloshie scrapyard. Scores of young boys, some as young as five, join men in scouring over mounds of computers, televisions, monitor screens, fridges and microwaves.

E-waste contains more than 1000 different substances, many of which are toxic, such as lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, selenium, hexavalent chromium, and flame retardants.
In total about 70 per cent of the heavy metals (mercury and cadmium) in most landfills come from electronic waste and 40 per cent lead in landfills come from electrical and electronic equipment.

All the items contain small but valuable amounts of aluminium, copper, cadmium or other minerals. Many of the devices also contain material that, if handled incorrectly, becomes toxic, including lead. Natural levels of lead in soil range between 50 parts per million (ppm) and 400 ppm, but the lead waste products from these dumps are often 100 times above those levels.

A popular method used by the children is to melt or burn the plastic coating around a computer or television’s internal wiring — a process that releases dangerous chemicals such as phthalates, which are known to damage sexual reproductive faculties, and cadmium and antimony, which have been found to contain chlorinated dioxins that can cause cancers.

Since its existence, UNEP has been at the forefront of trying to ensure a clean and healthy environment because of the multiple benefits to society and the economy that comes from effective environmental management.

Most impacts from unsafe chemical use and unsound waste disposal occur in situations of poverty.The poor face these risks because of their occupations, living standards and lack of knowledge about the effects of exposure.

For example, almost all deaths from pesticide exposure occur in developing countries.The management of electronic waste, the fastest growing waste stream in the world, is a challenge. E-waste contains hazardous substances - including heavy metals such as mercury and lead, and substances that disrupt the hormone system - affecting human growth, reproduction and neurological development. However, they also contain many strategic metals such as gold, palladium and rare earth metals, which can be recovered and recycled.

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