Electronic waste pollution may spread worldwide experts warn

Electronic waste is a global time bomb and regulations must be tightened to prevent toxic contamination from the millions of tonnes of old mobile phones, computers and other electronic goods spreading worldwide, experts have said at the CleanUp 2011 conference in Australia.

The illegal shipping of e-waste to developing countries in recent decades and inadequate handling and disposal methods has become a global problem, “in fact a global time bomb” Professor Ming Hung Wong from Hong Kong Baptist University told an Australian science media briefing.

“In 2009 alone, 53 million tonnes of e-waste were generated worldwide. It’s the fastest growing waste source in the world,” Prof Wong said.

He said loopholes in legislation meant so called recyclers could ship electronic waste to developing countries, taking advantage of the cheap labour and their less stringent regulations.

“They are using very primitive techniques for recycling electronic waste” with few or no facilities or trained professionals to ensure safe disposal of toxic products, Prof Wong said.

He said piles of wire with plastic casings are often burned to recover the metal, and circuit boards are slowly grilled over coal to release valuable chips.

“The slow burning of these products releases large quantities of hazardous chemicals to the surroundings, while the ashes are often contaminated with lead and other metals,” he said.

“These persistent pollutants end up everywhere – the air, the ocean, or leak into soil and groundwater.”

But as stricter legislation comes into place around the world developed countries will no longer be able to ship their e-waste overseas.

“I would like to remind some of the developed countries that the demand of these materials in developing countries is expected to decline in time because of the improved living standards as awareness develops and more stringent regulations [are put in place],” prof Wong said.

Prof Wong said China used to be a popular dumping site for e-waste, with 70 per cent of the world’s e-waste sent there but this was ending.

“In recent years, a lot of these waste products have been rejected due to stricter rules.”

“These waste materials will end up in the backyards of developed countries – so sooner or later we have to deal with this problem.“

Professor Ravi Naidu, Managing Director of the Co-operative Research Centre For Contamination Assessment And Remediation Of The Environment (CRC CARE)  said global treaties were needed to stop the shipping of e-waste between countries and to ensure manufacturers took responsibility for the recycling of their products.

“We already have millions of tonnes of electronic waste and it’s moving and crossing boundaries from one county to other countries. That will require a global treaty to see how we can minimise transport of e-waste from developed countries to less developed countries. At the same time we also need a global treaty that ensures the manufacturers responsibility.”

However, Paul Nathanail Professor of Engineering Geology at the University of Nottingham said public education about the risk of electronic waste could be more effective than international treaties.

“The problem with international treaties is they’re too slow to come up with and poorly implemented.”

“I would encourage a bottom up approach based on educating members of the public either to the risks that they are posing to themselves, their children or indeed somebody else’s children three or four thousand miles away.”