The global impact of e-waste: Addressing the challenge

New ILO report by Ms. Karin Lundgren

Jan 25, 2013
Category:

Electrical and electronic waste (e-waste) is currently the largest growing waste stream. It is hazardous, complex and expensive to treat in an environmentally sound manner, and there is a general lack of legislation or enforcement surrounding it. Today, most e-waste is being discarded in the general waste stream. Of the e-waste in developed countries that is sent for recycling, 80 per cent ends up being shipped (often illegally) to developing countries to be recycled by hundreds of thousands of informal workers. Such globalization of e-waste has adverse environmental and health implications. This paper explores the volumes, sources and flows of e-waste, the risks it poses to e-waste workers and the environment, occupational safety and health issues, labour issues and regulatory frameworks, and links this growing global problem with the International Labour Organization’s current and future work. It includes a wealth of case studies, chemicals of concern, organisations involved, and references, including reliance on “Challenging the chip: Labor rights and environmental justice in the global electronics industry” as well as research and recommendations from the Electronics TakeBack Coalition and many other NGOs.

Executive summary of 'The global impact of e-waste: Addressing the challenge'

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Electrical and electronic waste (e-waste) is currently the largest growing waste stream. It is hazardous, complex and expensive to treat in an environmentally sound manner, and there is a general lack of legislation or enforcement surrounding it.

Today, most e-waste is being discarded in the general waste stream. Of the e-waste in developed countries that is sent for recycling, 80 per cent ends up being shipped (often illegally) to developing countries such as China, India, Ghana and Nigeria for recycling. Within the informal economy of such countries, it is recycled for its many valuable materials by recyclers using rudimentary techniques. Such globalisation of e-waste has adverse environmental and health implications. Furthermore, developing countries are shouldering a disproportionate burden of a global problem without having the technology to deal with it. In addition, developing countries themselves are increasingly generating significant quantities of e-waste.

This paper explores the volumes, sources and flows of e-waste, the risks it poses to e-waste workers and the environment, occupational safety and health (OSH) issues, labour issues and regulatory frameworks, and links this growing global problem with the International Labour Organisation (ILO)’s current and future work. It is clear that the future of e-waste management depends not only on the effectiveness of local government authorities working with the operators of recycling services but also on community participation, together with national, regional and global initiatives.

The solution to the e-waste problem is not simply the banning of transboundary movements of e-waste, as domestic generation accounts for a significant proportion of e-waste in all countries. Fundamental to a sustainable solution will be tackling the fact that current practices and the illegal trade provide economic stimulus. It is important to recognize local and regional contexts and the social implications of the issue; implementing a high-tech, capital-intensive recycling process will not be appropriate in every country or region. Effective regulation must be combined with incentives for recyclers in the informal sector not to engage in destructive processes. Cheap, safe and simple processing methods for introduction into the informal sector are currently lacking; hence, it is necessary to create a financial incentive for recyclers operating in the informal sector to deliver recovered parts to central collection sites rather than process them themselves.

Multidisciplinary solutions are vital in addition to technical solutions, as is addressing the underlying social inequities inherent in the e-waste business. Recycling operations in the informal sector of the economy enable employment for hundreds of thousands of people in poverty. A possible entry point to address their negative impacts is to address occupational risks, targeting poverty as the root cause of hazardous work and, in the process, developing decent working conditions.

More generally, solutions to the global e-waste problem involve awareness raising among both consumers and e-waste recyclers in the informal economy, integration of the informal sector with the formal, creating green jobs, enforcing legislation and labour standards, and eliminating practices which are harmful to human health and the environment. It is also imperative to target electrical and electronics manufacturers by introducing Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) legislation and encouraging initial designs to be green, long lived, upgradeable and built for recycling. In considering solutions to the e-waste problem, this paper focuses on worker protection through appropriate legislation, formalization of the informal recycling sector and the opportunities represented by cooperative organization of e-waste workers.

Website: http://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/---ed_dialogue/---sector/documents/publication/wcms_196105.pdf

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