Public/Private Partnership Seeks to Create World Standards For E-Scrap Recycling, Harvesting Components

Standardizing recycling processes globally to harvest valuable components in electrical and electronic scrap (e-scrap), extending the life of products and markets for their reuse, and harmonizing world legislative and policy approaches to e-scrap are prime goals of a new global public-private initiative called Solving the E-Waste Problem (StEP).

Major high-tech manufacturers, including Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, Dell, Ericsson, Philips and Cisco Systems, join the United Nations, governmental, non-governmental organizations and academic institutions, along with recycling/refurbishing companies as charter members of the initiative, officially launched March 7.

Valuable resources in every scrapped product with a battery or plug -- computers, TVs, radios, wired and wireless phones, MP3 players, navigation-systems, microwave ovens, coffee makers, toasters, hair-dryers, to name but a few -- are being trashed in rising volumes worldwide. Items charitably sent to developing countries for re-use often ultimately remain unused for a host of reasons, or are shipped by for illegal disposal. And, too often, e-scrap in developing countries is incinerated, not only wasting needed resources but adding toxic chemicals to the environment, both local and global.

"There's more than gold in those mountains of high-tech scrap," said Ruediger Kuehr of the United Nations University (UNU), which will host the StEP Secretariat in Bonn. "This partnership is committed to salvaging these increasingly precious resources and preventing them from fouling the environment."

In addition to well-known precious metals such as gold, palladium and silver, unique and indispensable metals have become increasingly important in electronics. Among them: indium, a byproduct of zinc mining used in more than 1 billion products per year, including flat-screen monitors and mobile phones.

In the last five years, indium's price has increased six-fold, making it more expensive than silver. Though known mine reserves are limited, indium recycling is so far taking place in only a few plants in Belgium, Japan and the United States. Japan recovers roughly half its indium needs through recycling.

The market value of other important minor metals used in electronics such as bismuth (used in lead-free solders) has doubled since 2005, while ruthenium (used in resistors and hard disk drives) has increased by a factor of seven since early 2006.

"The large price spikes for all these special elements that rely on production of metals like zinc, copper, lead or platinum underline that supply security at affordable prices cannot be guaranteed indefinitely unless efficient recycling loops are established to recover them from old products," Kuehr said. "This recycling of trace elements requires hi-tech processes but it is vital to do it. For manufacturers, improving the e-scrap recycling process is essential to ongoing production and repair operations."

Unqualified or unscrupulous treatment of e-scrap is still usual in many developing countries. The inappropriate handling leads to:

  • Emissions of highly toxic dioxins, furans and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), caused by burning polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic and wire insulation.
  • Soil and water contamination from chemicals such as: brominated flame retardants (used in circuit boards and plastic computer cases, connectors and cables); polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) (in transformers and capacitors); and lead, mercury, cadmium, zinc, chromium and other heavy metals (in monitors and other devices).
  • Waste of valuable resources that could be efficiently recovered for a new product life-cycle.

In many industrializing and developing countries, growing numbers of people earn a living from recycling and salvaging electronic waste. In most cases, though, this is done through so-called "backyard practices," often taking place under the most primitive circumstances, exposing workers to extensive health dangers.

A global guide to dismantling e-scrap and maximizing the recovery and controlling recovered substances is a major StEP objective. A large-scale project to help e.g. China safely dismantle and dispose of its domestic e-scrap also is in the works. Maximizing resource re-utilization will help meet soaring demand in that country and India for increasingly scarce elements.

Inter-related StEP task forces will help shape government policies worldwide and address issues related to re-design and product life expectancy, re-use and re-cycling, and help build relevant capacity in developing nations.

The StEP initiative is the offspring of UNU, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). Other charter partners include the U.S. EPA, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), University of California at Berkeley, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Technical University Vienna (Austria), French National Institute of Telecommunication (France), Technical University Delft (Netherlands), University of Melbourne (Australia), State Secretary of Economics and EMPA (Switzerland), Regional Environmental Centre (Hungary), the Korea Institute of Geoscience & Mineral Resources, and Umicore Precious Metal Refining (Belgium).

"Companies involved in StEP will benefit through globally standardized, safe and environmentally-proven processes for disposal, reduction or reuse and recycling of e-scrap," says UN Under Secretary-General and UNU Rector Hans van Ginkel. "Consumers will benefit through knowing what to do with their obsolete machines, less pollution and longer lasting electronic equipment. Member manufacturers will work to design products more easily upgradeable because we all agree buying an entirely new product is wasteful when what's really wanted are upgraded components."

The StEP logo will signal to consumers that e-scrap processes associated with a company's products conform to agreed international standards and guidelines.

For more information, contact the United Nations University at http://www.unu.edu.

This article originally appeared in the 03/01/2007 issue of Environmental Protection.

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