Proper disposal of old electronic equipment key in protection human rights

“Many electronic and electrical appliances contain highly toxic substances and pose significant risks to human health and the environment if they are not managed and disposed of in an environmentally sound manner,” warns Calin Georgescu, the UN Expert on toxic waste.

The demand for electronic and electrical equipment, such as mobile phones, televisions, computers, printers, photo devices, coffee-makers, air-conditioners, dish-washers is growing fast and, because of the rapid changes in technology, people are upgrading their electronic equipment more frequently than ever before.

Some 20 to 50 million metric tonnes of electronic waste, commonly referred to as e-waste, are generated every year, according to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). 

Mobile phones now have a life cycle of less than two years in developed countries.

 “Discarded, obsolete, or broken electronic equipment is often transported to destinations where recycling is not regulated,” Georgescu says.

Major e-waste destinations include several countries in Asia, such as India, China and Pakistan and some countries in Africa, including Ghana, Nigeria and Benin.

 “In developing countries, the vast majority of obsolete electronic equipment is dismantled in small-scale, informal laboratories that separate their various components for recycling or reuse,” he says.

During the process workers are exposed to hazardous substances including toxic plastic additives. Furthermore, unusable parts are usually disposed of in landfills or burned, causing widespread and long-lasting contamination of soil, air and water. The work is often carried out by children with no protective equipment.

“It is important to maximise the protection of individuals and communities who are or can be adversely affected by these hazardous products and wastes and address the human rights impact caused by their unsafe or inappropriate management,” adds Georgescu.

Treaties such as the Basel Convention, with its 172 signatories, which include e-waste destinations, provide a legal framework for the movement and disposal of toxic materials worldwide. The Convention’s main goal is to protect human health and the environment, and the treaty can also be applied to the protection of relevant human rights. The Convention has put in place a prior and informed consent system aimed at ensuring that only countries with the will and capacity to handle, in an environmentally sound manner, hazardous wastes originating from another country actually receive such wastes. Illegal transport is a crime according to the Convention, however is still taking place.

“Everyone has a role to play to help protect people and the environment,” says  Georgescu. “Electronic recycling awareness is very important to help consumers dispose appropriately of electronic equipment and ensure that its toxic remnants do not go to an ill-equipped yard in a developing country.”

UNEP predicts that by 2020 e-waste from old computers will have jumped by 500 per cent from 2007 levels in India, and by 200 to 400 per cent in South Africa and China, while that from old mobile phones will be 7 times higher than current levels in China and 18 times higher in India.

In 2011, the United Nations Television film, "Africa: Digital Graveyard” won first place out of 20 contenders in the Current Affairs category at EKOTOPFILM, a long-running Slovakia-based international film festival focusing on sustainable development.

"Africa: Digital Graveyard" addresses the growing problem of electronic waste in Ghana. The film also depicted action taken by innovators in South Africa who have found creative ways to recycle, refurbish and reprocess elements from old electronics for use as raw materials in the manufacture of new products.

14 February 2012

See also