High-value plastics
squandered in high-tech e-waste

High-value plastics squandered in e-waste

Plastics: a dangerous, vexing, fastest-growing e-waste challenge

Health, environment impacted by incineration, landfilling almost all of the estimated annual 8 million tonnes of plastics in end-of-life e-products.

Plastics are among the most dangerous and least recycled components in the fast-growing worldwide waste stream of electronic and electrical products, experts say. Roughly 8 million metric tonnes of high-value plastics that originally cost manufacturers US $2,500 to $5,500 per tonne - tens of billions of dollars worth in all - constitute about 20% by weight of the 49 million metric tonnes of e-products now entering worldwide markets each year. 
The plastics used each year in refrigerators and small home appliances, TVs, mobile phones, computers, monitors, e-toys and other products with a battery or electrical cord is the weight equivalent of 1.2 million of the world’s largest elephants, enough to create an annual line of giant African pachyderms standing trunk to tail from Los Angeles to Istanbul or from Cape Town to Reykjavik.
However, the plastics often include additives to meet specialized needs such as fire prevention, impact resistance, flexibility or colour, which combined with other factors make them far harder to sort and recycle than e-product components made of iron, copper, steel or aluminium.

As a result, "Plastics represent the most dangerous challenge and the one furthest from being resolved in the complex global e-waste stream — as vexing as the recovery of minute amounts of specialized metals essential to manufacturing electronic and electrical devices," says expert Federico Magalini of United Nations University’s Institute for Advanced Studies.

The recycle rate of plastics generally is below 10%; for plastics from e-waste it is more in the order of 4 to 5%. Well over 90% of e-waste plastics therefore eventually wind up in landfills and, in the worst situations, primitively incinerated through open burning - the mirror opposite of recycling levels of steel and aluminum components, which are recovered at rates of over 90%.
Incinerating plastic, a common practice in many countries, without complete combustion (the threshold for which is very high in plastics that include fire retardant additives) can release toxic furans and dioxins. The hazard of releasing these persistent organic pollutants into the environmental is compounded therefore by direct air and water-borne health threats. 
And the e-waste problem will only keep growing. A recent report predicts that the consumer electronics market will balloon from US$ 1 trillion in 2012 to US$ 1.6 trillion by 2018.

The United Nations University-hosted Solving the E-Waste Problem (StEP) Initiative recently released data in the first-ever global e-waste map showing that by 2017 the annual mountain of e-waste will be 65.4 million tonnes in all, one-third higher than 2012 levels.

Acute concerns about e-waste management in developing countries and the fate of the plastic components in particular were highlighted in expert presentations at a UN-backed E-waste Academy for Managers (EWAM) in El Salvador in April 2014, organized by UNU and StEP.

At EWAM, recycling expert Chris Slijkhuis of Austria’s Müller-Guttenbrunn GmbH, indicated that few recyclers worldwide are equipped to deal with e-waste plastic, even though recycling it is 80 to 90% more energy efficient than producing it from petroleum, saving up to 4 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions per tonne produced.

Just 2 or 3 types of plastic could be used to cover most of the technical manufacturing needs, he adds, although many more are used in practice.

If the European Union alone recycled half of its plastic waste, says Mr. Slijkhuis, it would save:

  • Over 7 million barrels of oil (worth over $700 million) as feedstock for plastic, roughly the capacity of two ultra large crude oil tankers, and
  • Some 10 million kilowatt hours of energy and nearly 2 million tons the region’s emissions of carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas largely blamed for climate change.

It would also:

  • make e-waste recycling facilities more economically viable,
  • create new jobs because plastics recycling is more labor intensive, and
  • provide manufacturers with a more sustainable source of materials.

The E-waste Academy for Managers in El Salvador was the second in an international series inaugurated by UNU and StEP. The first took place in Ghana in 2012.
By sharing insights on “urban mining” and fostering international linkages and collaboration, the e-waste academies are enabling local solutions to a growing global concern.
The Academy provided insight into the important role of the UN Environment Programme-administered Basel Convention, which governs the safe, legal movement of hazardous waste, including e-waste, worldwide.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, already among largest destinations for the developed world’s e-waste exports, a fast-growing middle class is buying more electronic and electrical equipment first-hand with rising purchasing power and living standard expectations.
According to the World Bank, in the past decade, the middle class in the region grew 50% and represents 32% of the population of Latin America and the Caribbean, for the first time in history surpassing the number of poor.

UNU and StEP data shows per capita e-waste generation in the region’s 30 countries averaged 7.5 kilos in 2013, led by the Bahamas with 19.1 kilos per capita. By 2017, regional per capita generation is expected to rise almost 19% to 8.9 kilos in 2017. 
Only about one-third of the countries of South America, Latin America and the Caribbean have regulatory instruments related to e-waste (Brazil has the most, followed by Argentina, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Mexico and Costa Rica), though others in the region are proposing or actively working on specific legislative bills.

The Academy in El Salvador convened:

  • 21 participants from 10 countries of South America, Central America and the Caribbean (Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Jamaica, Peru, Trinidad and Uruguay)
  • 3 participants from Africa (Burundi and South Africa)
  • 14 experts from such institutions as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the US Environment Protection Agency, the World Resources Forum in Switzerland and precious metal recycler UMICORE in Belgium, and
  • 7 facilitators from IT manufacturers (Dell, Hewlett Packard and Nokia), as well as the UN Industrial Development Organization.

The UNU and StEP e-waste academies for managers (EWAM) and scientists (EWAS), are valuable fora for e-waste researchers, government decision makers and recyclers as others in the broader StEP community. StEP experts provide experience and knowledge to participants who, in turn, share concerns and challenges in their efforts to address e-waste in a developing country context.

UN Under Secretary-General David Malone, Rector of UN University: "There is great opportunity in the e-waste recycling industry — a sector valued at US$ 9.8 billion in 2012 expected to reach over US$ 40 billion before the end of the decade.'Waste management' is being reinvented as 'resource management’ because the resources are just valuable to squander."

Ruediger Kuehr, Executive Secretary of the StEP (Solving the E-Waste Problem) Initiative & Head of UNU-IAS SCYCLE, both based in Bonn, Germany: "To achieve efficient, environmentally-sound recycling, we need the means to produce reusable waste fractions in ways appropriate to local circumstances with the benefit of international strengths and advice, as well as markets for the recycled components."

Federico Magalini of UNU-IAS SCYCLE, co-ordinator of the E-waste Academy – Managers Edition series: "What’s called a “best of two worlds” approach is needed: efficient pre-processing in developing countries and maximised recovery of materials and proper treatment of residual waste in countries with the best technologies for the job, with proceeds shared fairly and equitably."

About the StEP E-waste Academy – Managers Edition
The E-waste Academies for policymakers and small and medium enterprises (EWAM) is a pioneering program that aims to foster and sustain multi-stakeholder partnerships and collaboration on e-waste policy and management, looking at the e-waste issue in its entirety, rather than through the lens of a specific discipline.

In addition to expert lectures and presentation on topics ranging from e-waste related policy and sociology issues to technology and economics, the week-long academy program includes group projects and site visits.

Participants include representatives from small and medium enterprises in developing countries - mostly recyclers and refurbishers - as well as key policymakers and government officials.

Organized by the UNU-hosted Solving the E-waste Problem (StEP) initiative the academy was sponsored by EMPA/SECO, NVMP Foundation, US-EPA, Nokia, GeSI, HP, Dell, UNIDO and World Loop. For more information: www.ewasteacademy.org.

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United Nations University (www.unu.edu)
UNU is an autonomous organ of the UN General Assembly dedicated to generating and transferring knowledge and strengthening capacities relevant to global issues of human security, development, and welfare. The University operates through a worldwide network of research and training centres and programmes, coordinated by UNU Centre in Tokyo.

StEP (www.step-initiative.org)
Solving the E-Waste Problem is a partnership of several UN organizations, prominent industry, government and international organizations, NGOs and the science sector. StEP initiates and facilitates sustainable e-waste handling through analysis, planning and pilot projects