The Big Question: How big is the problem of electronic waste, and can it be tackled?

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Why are we asking this now?

Because yesterday the UN issued a new report on electronic waste, highlighting the danger from "rocketing" sales of mobile phones, PCs and electronic appliances, in the developing countries especially.

What danger is that?

Modern electronic devices might look clean, sleek and spotless on the outside, but inside they contain a lot of materials used in manufacture which are potentially hazardous to human health. Typical ones are PVC (polyvinyl chloride) plastic, used as an insulator with internal cabling, and brominated flame retardants, chemicals used to laminate printed circuit boards to prevent them catching fire.

Most of these substances can be disposed of safely, but considerable investment in waste-handling infrastructure is needed to do so, and in the past, many countries, especially the US, have declined to make the investment and instead taken the "out of sight, out of mind" attitude, and simply shipped their e-waste abroad, usually to developing nations such as China and India. There, instead of being properly processed, appliances are either dumped in unmanaged landfills or broken up for scrap in unofficial recycling facilities – not infrequently by children.

But why break up dangerous waste?

Electronic goods don't just contain hazardous substances – they contain valuable substances as well. A device such as a laptop may contain as many as 60 different elements – many valuable, some dangerous, some both. To poor people in the developing countries, there can be real money in a discarded computer or mobile phone. Copper wire is just the start of it. Mobiles and PCs are now estimated to take up three per cent of the gold and silver mined worldwide each year, 13 per cent of the palladium and 15 per cent of the cobalt, as well as substantial amounts of very rare metals such as hafnium. But trying to recover these can pose real hazards, as substantial plumes of toxic pollution, for example, can be produced by backyard incineration. And the concern is, the stream of e-waste is growing ever larger around the world.

How big is the e-waste stream?

A couple of years ago the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) estimated that, worldwide, between 20 and 50 million tonnes of electrical and electronic goods which had come to the end of their lives were being thrown away every year. The latest UNEP report now estimates the annual total at 40 billion tonnes, with America in the lead, producing 3m tonnes domestically every year, followed by China with 2.3m tonnes. (The UK total is thought to be more than 1m tonnes, about 15 per cent of the EU total – it is the fastest-growing waste stream in Britain). But more important, the figure is starting to soar upwards, especially with a gigantic surge of disposable electronics use in the developing countries.

What sort of goods, and in what sort of numbers?

Globally more than a billion mobile phones were sold in 2007, up from 896m in 2006 (In many parts of Africa telephone communications have skipped the landline stage and gone from no phones, to mobile phones, in one step). In the US alone, more than 150m mobiles and pagers were sold in 2008, up from 90m five years earlier. The waste streams are correspondingly burgeoning, and the new UN report focuses on China, India and the other relatively poor but expanding economies.

In China, for example, the report predicts that by 2020, e-waste from old computers will have jumped by 200 to 400 percent from 2007 levels, and the same holds true for South Africa, while the figure for India is a staggering 500 per cent. By that same year in China, e-waste from discarded mobile phones will be about 7 times higher than 2007 levels and, in India, 18 times higher, while e-waste from televisions will be 1.5 to 2 times higher in China and India, and in India e-waste from discarded refrigerators will double or triple. Add to that the vast amounts of e-waste that are still being imported from countries such as the US, and you have a quite colossal e-waste mountain in prospect, with its corresponding dangers for human health and the environment. "The issue is exploding," says Ruediger Kuehr, of the United Nations University in Tokyo.

What can we do about it?

The first thing to do is recognise the problem. The electronics revolution of the past 30 years has seemed different in kind from the original industrial revolution, characterised by smokestacks belching very obvious filth; it has seemed clean, green and lean. But we have gradually come to realise that in two ways in particular, modern hi-tech can be bad for the planet too. The first is its energy use; so enormous is the worldwide scale of IT that electronics now accounts for fully two per cent of global carbon emissions, which about the same as aviation, whose emissions have become highly controversial. The second is the hardware, when it comes to the end of its natural life, which increasingly, is pretty short. We have been largely ignorant of this increasingly important waste stream, so much so that a Greenpeace report on e-waste two years ago referred to it as "the hidden flow". We need to be aware of it.

Once we've recognised the problem, then what?

The European Union has shown the way by adopting a key principle: producer responsibility – that is, make the producers of electronic goods responsible for their disposal at the end of their lives. This is enshrined in the European Union's WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) directive of 2002 which is now law in Britain and across the EU. In practice, it means that electronics retailers must either take back the equipment they sold you, or help to finance a network or drop-off points, such as council recycling sites. There have been some problems with the directive's initial operation, but its main feature is impressive in its ambition: it aims to deal with "everything with a plug".

Has producer responsibility been adopted elsewhere?

Hardly at all as yet, and the EU is very much in the vanguard. The US did nothing in terms of federal legislation during the George W Bush years, and such rules as exist are implemented by the states, such as California. The new UN report suggests that all countries should start to establish proper e-waste management networks, which could not only cut down on health problems but generate employment, cut greenhouse gas emissions and recover a wide range of valuable substances from gold to copper.

Is there anything else that can be done?

Yes: design the problem out. Groups such as Greenpeace have led the way in putting pressure on companies like Apple to find substitutes for the toxic chemicals inside their products, and have had some success in forcing them to develop non-toxic alternatives. This may be the real way forward.

Is the rising tide of e-waste going to swamp us?

Yes...

* Once we recognise the problem, it becomes possible to deal with it, and the need is paramount

* The adoption of producer responsibility for disposal, as championed by the EU, is a major step forward

* Some of the hazards can actually be designed out, and that must be a priority for manufacturers

No...

* The growth of the global e-waste stream is becoming simply too large to handle

* In many countries there are no incentives to install official recycling schemes

* Informal recycling is so large in countries such as China that it will hamper official schemes

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