On International E-waste Day, please consider the hidden cost of your devices

An estimated 50 million tonnes of electronic, or E-waste, is generated every year. This year for the first time, 13 October is designated International E-waste Day, to raise awareness of the hazards to health and environment of improper recycling of   mobile phones, computers, and other electrical and electronic devices. Actions around the world will serve to highlight the direct connection between the unsafe disposal and recycling of electronic waste to negative impacts upon human health and the environment, especially in countries where recycling often takes place in the informal sector without sufficient protective equipment for workers, including vulnerable groups such as the poor, children, and women.

E-waste is categorized as hazardous waste due to the presence of toxic materials such as mercury, lead and brominated flame retardants, all considered as hazardous waste according to the Basel Convention. E-waste may also contain precious metals such as gold, copper and nickel and rare materials of strategic value such as indium and palladium. These precious and heavy metals can be recovered, recycled and used as valuable source of secondary raw materials. It has been documented that e-wastes are shipped to developing countries where it is often not managed in an environmentally sound manner, thus posing a serious threat to both human health and the environment from those toxic materials.

E-waste is considered one of the fastest growing hazardous waste streams in the world today. Some chemicals, including highly toxic Persistent Organic Pollutants (or POPs), are released into the atmosphere when plastic wiring is burnt to extract the valuable and recyclable copper wires inside. These toxic fumes are then inhaled by workers. This is just one of the ways unprotected, informal workers – including young people, women and children, are exposed to hazardous substances in the E-waste recycling sector.

For these reasons, the Basel Convention’s Partnership for Action on Computing Equipment (PACE) continues to work to promote environmentally sound management of E-waste. Guidance documents have been agreed, designed to help governments protect their citizens from the hazards implicit when managing and recycling end-of-life electronic devices such as personal computers, printers, and mobile phones. The Guidance documents are available in Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish and can be viewed or downloaded here: https://www.basel.int/Implementation/TechnicalAssistance/Partnerships/PACE/PACEGuidanceDocument/tabid/3246/Default.aspx

The Basel Convention also assists Parties to control transboundary movements of E-waste. An important distinction needs to be made between what is actually waste, or non-waste. To that end, the Parties adopted Guidelines on the distinction between waste and non-waste, with criteria and standards for transboundary movements. The Guidelines can be found here in all 6 UN languages: https://www.basel.int/Implementation/Ewaste/TechnicalGuidelines/DevelopmentofTGs/tabid/2377/Default.aspx

The World Economic Forum, using data from the E-waste Monitor, has produced two short videos summarising the issues around E-waste, with compelling footage and stories from Ghana and elsewhere, and outlining opportunities for the circular economy. Watch the videos here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Czu3BC7SrFQ and here: https://www.facebook.com/worldeconomicforum/videos/10155385708896479/

For more information on E-waste, please see: https://www.basel.int/Implementation/Ewaste/Overview/tabid/4063/Default.aspx Or, to find a special event near you on International E-waste Day, Saturday 13th November, on the website of the WEEE Forum: https://www.weee-forum.org/international-e-waste-day-0