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March 04, 2010
UNEP Report Describes Urgent Need to Address E-Waste
    by Robert Kropp

With growth of e-waste in developing countries expected to multiply by 2020, the report identifies technologies that can increase recycling rates and generate jobs in a low-carbon economy.

Energy efficiency measures such as recycling have often been described as the "low-hanging fruit" of climate change mitigation efforts. Described in a 2009 report by McKinsey & Company as "an emissions-free energy resource," efficiency measures such as recycling can lead to cost savings and improved returns on investment, as well as significant abatement of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

A report published last month by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) describes the urgent need to address e-waste, which includes PCs and laptop computers, printers, mobile phones, pagers, digital photo and music devices, refrigerators, toys, and televisions. Global e-waste generation is growing by about 40 million tons a year, according to the UNEP report.

The need to address e-waste will be especially urgent in developing countries, where much of the e-waste from developed countries is currently being discarded, and whose own production of e-waste is expected to multiply by 2020. China, for example, currently produces about 2.3 million tons of e-waste per year, second only to the US. By 2020, China's e-waste production from computers will increase by as much as 400% over 2007 levels, while e-waste from mobile phones will be about seven times higher.

The report used data from 11 representative developing countries to estimate current and future e-waste generation.

China is also a major dumping ground for e-waste from developed countries. According to the report, most e-waste in China is improperly handled, leading to emissions of toxic pollutants and very low metal recovery rates.

Achim Steiner, the Executive Director of UNEP, said, "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."

He continued, "Boosting developing country e-waste recycling rates can have the potential to generate decent employment, cut greenhouse gas emissions and recover a wide range of valuable metals including silver, gold, palladium, copper and indium."

Konrad Osterwalder, UN Under-Secretary General, said, "The challenge of dealing with e-waste represents an important step in the transition to a green economy."

Because of individual or corporate initiatives, sustainable technologies exist that, when combined with national and international policies, can create new businesses and green jobs, according to the report.

"The future success of technological innovation in environments with strong informal participation strongly depends on alternative business models with financial incentives," the report concludes.

The electronics industry, through the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC), has published a Code of Conduct directing participants to minimize adverse effects on the community, environment, and natural resources. Information and Communications Technology (ICT) companies, through the Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI), has an e-Waste Initiative that encourages more efficient use, and more extensive re-use, of materials by viewing e-waste as a valuable resource.

In the US, activist shareowners have been engaging with electronics companies on the issue of e-waste for years.


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