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UN warning over e-waste 'avalanche'

Number of old PCs sent to India to grow 500%

Developing countries need to prepare for an avalanche of e-waste generated by PCs, consumer electronics and appliances, the United Nations said in a study released on Monday.

By 2020, the e-waste levels from old computers will jump by 500 percent in India and by 200 percent to 400 percent in countries like South Africa and China from the 2007 levels, the study said. E-waste from discarded mobile phones in 2020 will be about seven times higher than 2007 levels in China and about 18 times higher in India, the UN said.

Developing countries currently have no proper e-waste recycling infrastructure, said the study by the United Nations Environment Program and EMPA, a materials testing laboratory in Switzerland. Unorganised recycling and e-waste disposal methods, including the incineration of computers and mobile phones, could seriously affect human health and the environment.

"This report gives new urgency to establishing ambitious, formal and regulated processes for collecting and managing e-waste via the setting up of large, efficient facilities in China," said UN Under-Secretary General Achim Steiner, who is also the executive director of UNEP, in a statement.

"China is not alone in facing a serious challenge. India, Brazil, Mexico and others may also face rising environmental damage and health problems if e-waste recycling is left to the vagaries of the informal sector," Steiner said.

Developing countries are also dumping grounds for e-waste, the study said. Electronics are incinerated by recyclers in China to recover valuable metals like gold, which could release toxic fumes into the environment. Mobile phones contain base metals such as copper, cobalt, silver and gold, which could represent about 23 percent of the weight of a phone, the UN said.

Electronics also contain hazardous substances, including lead, mercury and arsenic, and burning such devices releases toxic fumes into the air. Hazardous substances like mercury are also used to treat e-waste to retrieve metals like gold, which could release toxic fumes, the UN said in the study.

But if done properly, precious metals and other materials can be recovered in an environmentally friendly and inexpensive manner, the UN said. E-waste could be handed over to countries with sufficient facilities to sort, dismantle and treat electronic waste, minimising the environmental impact. For example, e-waste from Central European countries could be handled by Hungary, which is better equipped to treat e-waste, the report said.

The UN also suggested ways of effectively recycling materials, such as by freezing consumer electronics and appliances to remove hazardous parts or by establishing manual or automated dismantling lines to remove elements. Manual dismantling is not only ecologically efficient, but could also create sustainable business opportunities in developing countries.

Many consumer electronic companies are making efforts to reduce hazardous substances used in PCs and consumer electronics. Apple and other PC makers have made commitments to phase out the use of chemicals like brominated fire retardants and polyvinyl chloride in components and circuit boards.

The European Union in 2003 adopted the ROHS (Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive), which restricts the use of hazardous substances in electronics. Efforts are under way in the US to promote responsible recycling of consumer electronics, with recyclers, nonprofits and companies like Waste Management creating a certification programme to promote safe and ethical e-waste disposal.

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