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The Growing Problem Of E-Waste

September 4, 2009

Disposal and recycling standards for old computer equipment and other electronic waste must be harmonized for this rapidly growing problem to be dealt with effectively across national borders. An analysis of the current rules and regulations is reported in the latest issue of the International Journal of Environmental Engineering.

Sunil Herat, a senior lecturer in waste management at Griffith University, Queensland, Australia, explains that different policies are being developed worldwide to deal with e-waste. This, he says, could lead to new problems as the waste stream grows as any unscrupulous companies charged with recycling or disposing of electronic goods exploit loopholes in regional legislation.

The European Union’s Directives on Waste Electrical and Electronic Waste (WEEE) and Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) have paved the way for controls while China, Japan, Korea, and some US states have adopted similar laws. The United Nations through the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal adopted the Nairobi declaration on e-waste in 2006, but there are still countless issues to be addressed.

Used electronic equipment, including computers, cell phones, and TVs has become one of the fastest growing waste streams across the globe. There is even evidence that developing nations are increasingly reluctant to accept electronic equipment that is considered obsolete in the West. This is not surprising given the complex mix of often toxic materials from which modern electronic devices are made and the rapid descent into total obsolescence for most devices.

Indeed, Herat explains, 20 to 50 million tonnes of e-waste are generated across the globe each year bringing with it significant risks to human health and the environment. It is estimated that a billion computers could be deemed obsolete each decade from now on and that number may grow as technology advances and more devices are developed.

The disparate policies that are being implemented on a state, national, and federal basis relating to the management of e-waste will, to some extent, help to combat the problem. However, worldwide there remains an urgency to deal with e-waste so that regions do not become dumping grounds for what is essentially a toxic and potentially intractable waste stream.

Herat has reviewed the various legal frameworks being established in different parts of the world and now emphasizes that the only way forward is to find a way to harmonize and unify these different approaches and to ensure that the Basel Convention is enforced and extended.

“International regulations and treaties on electronic waste” in Int. J. Environmental Engineering, 2009, 1, 335-351

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