Helping Latin America meet its e-waste challenge

Helping Latin America meet its e-waste challenge

Few of us ever give much thought to what happens when we dispose of the electrical and electronic equipment that we use on a daily basis. Referred to as e-waste, these products accumulate in ever-increasing quantities around the world, posing severe health and environmental threats.

Toxic materials contained in e-waste are released into the atmosphere, water or soil, causing irreversible damage to the environment. Some devices contain highly toxic and even carcinogenic substances, known as persistent organic pollutants (POPs), which can be dispersed over long distances by winds or ocean currents. These POPs resist environmental degradation and accumulate in the tissue of living organisms.  

Exposure to even small amounts of mercury, for example, which is heavily used in energy-saving lamps and flat screen monitors, can cause serious health problems, damaging people’s nervous, digestive and immune systems, and their lungs, kidneys, skin and eyes.  

“Estimates suggest that, currently, around 50 million metric tons of e-waste are generated every year worldwide, and this tendency is rising,” says Smail Alhilali of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO).

As a result of technological innovation, the trend to upgrade devices, and products’ ever-shorter life span, e-waste is now the largest growing flow of waste. In 2012, the world’s biggest generators of e-waste were the United States, China, Japan, Germany, and Russia, with quantities ranging between 1.5 and 9.4 million metric tons. During the same year, the US population had the highest per-capita production, with around 30kg of e-waste generated per person. 

Managing e-waste properly is not only a question of protecting human health and the environment, but also presents an opportunity to use the valuable materials that can be found in many types of discarded devices. If recycling is not properly carried out, precious resources can be lost. For example, metals contained in mobile phones include gold, silver, palladium and platinum. When one takes into account that 1.9 billion mobile phones are expected to be sold globally in 2015 alone, the amount of metals that could be recovered is significant. There is, therefore, a clear economic stimulus to manage e-waste.

An obvious solution, already in place, is to recycle. Most recycling of used electrical or electronic goods is carried out informally in developing countries: according to the International Labour Organization, 80 per cent of the e-waste that is collected and sent for recycling in developed countries – mainly the US – ends up being shipped to developing countries. This trend of exporting used devices to be recycled abroad is often referred to as the ‘globalization of e-waste’. 

UNIDO’s Alhilali says the export of e-waste to the developing world “often leads to obsolete products being recycled in poor, marginalized areas using risky, rudimentary techniques.”

Informal sector workers are usually the first victims of this practice because, Alhilali explains, “being unaware of the dangers, they are exposed to health risks, ranging from inhalation of toxic fumes to dermal exposure. In addition, toxic substances, including POPs, are being released into the atmosphere, causing environmental damage that could be avoided with the right regulation in place.”

Since 2008, UNIDO, in line with its mandate to promote inclusive and sustainable industrial development, has been helping developing countries and countries with economies in transition to sustainably manage e-waste. It does so by advising governments on legal frameworks and identifying financing options to sustain the recycling system, taking all stages of the e-waste recycling chain into account – from collection to dismantling, recycling and final disposal.

In Latin America, countries both produce and import e-waste, forming an intra-regional flow that exists mostly on the margins of regulation.

Alfredo Cueva, UNIDO Industrial Development Officer, says, “Due to the region’s accelerated economic growth and level of development, the amount of e-waste is growing even faster than in other regions.” Cueva cites Brazil as an example, explaining that it “was the sixth biggest generator of e-waste in the world in 2012, with 7.1kg of e-waste generated per person that year." 

Cueva goes on to say that e-waste has become a very prominent issue on national agendas across Latin America. “Private sector and civil society organizations too have a growing interest in solving the e-waste problem. This is not only due to political pressure and public concerns about the hazardous components of e-waste, but also due to the attractive business opportunities that e-waste management offers. Increasingly Latin American countries are seeing e-waste management as a generator of new green enterprises and employment.”

Of particular concern in Latin America is the smuggling, and informal collection and dismantling of e-waste, which leads to unfair competition and unpredictable dangers. This, UNIDO’s Cueva argues, “can be addressed by having the right systems in place, including policies and regulations, e-waste service providers, sound financing and properly functioning markets, appropriate technology and skills, societies that are well-informed and aware, and, of course, good monitoring, control and enforcement bodies.”

According to the Solving the E-waste Problem (StEP) Initiative, around one third of the countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have so far established regulatory instruments related to e-waste. Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica and Peru are regional leaders, while others are on their way towards developing and implementing legal frameworks. 

Currently, UNIDO is developing a project titled, "Strengthening of National Initiatives and Enhancement of Regional Cooperation for the Environmentally Sound Management of POPs in Waste of Electronic or Electrical Equipment (WEEE) in Latin American Countries". The project will be implemented in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela. It is co-funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF), national bodies and the private sector.

With this project, UNIDO will assist the 13 countries both technically and financially, advising on policies, business, legislation, technology and awareness-raising. At the national level, it will help strengthen policies and train technicians and public officials, developing information and awareness. It will also scale up existing infrastructure or establish new infrastructure where needed. At the regional level, it will work towards harmonizing key aspects of e-waste policies, strengthening regional cooperation, knowledge management and information exchange systems.

By Laura Gil Martínez
Posted February 2015

Spanish version available here.

Further reading  

More on UNIDO’s work in this field 

Acute concern for health, environment highlighted at UN-backed e-waste academy in Latin America, May 2014

Dell reinforces e-waste work in Africa, Asia and Latin America, September 2014

Synergies among the the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm conventions