India, China and other developing countries face “the spectre of hazardous e-waste mountains” unless they step up action to collect and recycle e-waste, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) has warned.

As sales of electronic products in India, China and other developing countries are set to rise sharply in the next 10 years, these “e-waste mountains” would have “serious consequences for the environment and public health”, said a report released here during UNEP's governing council meeting.

The report, “Recycling – from E-Waste to Resources”, used data from 11 developing countries to estimate current and future e-waste generation – which includes old and dilapidated desk and laptop computers, printers, mobile phones, pagers, digital photo and music devices, refrigerators, toys and television sets.

The report estimates e-waste generation in India now at over 100,000 tonnes a year from refrigerators, 275,000 tonnes from TVs, 56,300 tonnes from personal computers, 4,700 tonnes from printers and 1,700 tonnes from mobile phones

Electronic waste from old computers will jump 500 percent in India, and between 200 and 400 percent in South Africa and China by 2020, the report predicts.

By that same year in India, e-waste from discarded mobile phones will be about 18 times higher than 2007 levels and, in China, seven times higher.

By 2020, e-waste from televisions will be 1.5 to 2 times higher in China and India while in India e-waste from discarded refrigerators will double or triple.

Most e-waste in India is incinerated by backyard recyclers to recover valuable metals like gold — practices that release steady plumes of far-reaching toxic pollution and yield very low metal recovery rates compared to state-of-the-art industrial facilities.

UNEP Executive Director and UN Under-Secretary-General Achim Steiner said: “India, Brazil, Mexico and others may face rising environmental damage and health problems if e-waste recycling is left to the vagaries of the informal sector.”

The report was co-authored by the Swiss EMPA, Umicore and the United Nations University (UNU), part of the global think tank StEP (Solving the E-waste Problem).

The report says:

  • Global e-waste generation is growing by about 40 million tons a year
  • Manufacturing mobile phones and personal computers consumes three percent of the gold and silver mined worldwide each year, 13 percent of the palladium and 15 percent of cobalt
  • Modern electronics contain up to 60 different elements — many valuable, some hazardous, and some both
  • Carbon dioxide emissions from the mining and production of copper and precious and rare metals used in electrical and electronic equipment are estimated at over 23 million tonnes
  • Globally, more than a billion mobile phones were sold in 2007, up from 896 million in 2006

The report suggests critical e-scrap like circuit boards or batteries be sent to certified end-processors from poor countries that lacked the ability to process them. The report's authors praised a pilot project in Bangalore to transform the operations of informal e-waste collection and management.

UNU Rector and UN Under-Secretary General Konrad Osterwalder said: “The challenge of dealing with e-waste represents an important step in the transition to a green economy.

“This report outlines smart new technologies and mechanisms which, combined with national and international policies, can transform waste into assets, creating new businesses with decent green jobs. In the process, countries can help cut pollution linked with mining and manufacturing, and with the disposal of old devices.”