OSLO (Reuters) - A metric ton of old mobile phones contains metals worth $15,000, and the world needs better rules to tackle growing mountains of electronic waste in developing nations, a U.N.-backed alliance said on Tuesday.
“A lot of equipment simply ends up dumped,” in poor nations, said Ruediger Kuehr, head of the secretariat of StEP (Solving the E-waste Problem) whose backers include U.N. agencies and companies such as Microsoft and Nokia.
“Processes and policies governing the re-use and recycling of electronic products need to be standardized worldwide to stem and reverse the growing problem of illegal and harmful e-waste,” a StEP statement said.
Kuehr said that Bonn-based StEP, created in 2007, had gathered ideas at a 15-nation meeting this month about better ways to clean up and regulate exports.
A ton of used mobile phones, or about 6,000 handsets, contained about 3.5 kg (7.7 lb) of silver, 340 grams of gold, 140 grams of palladium and 130 kg of copper, StEP said. A phone battery contains another 3.5 grams of copper.
“Combined value: over $15,000 at today’s prices,” it said.
A lot of electronic waste was shipped to developing nations under loopholes allowing exports of computers or television sets for re-use abroad, Kuehr told Reuters by telephone. But much of the exports were scrap that was illegally exported.
“All too often, e-scrap in developing nations is incinerated to recover metals,” StEP said. That was cheap and could be lucrative, but emitted toxins including heavy metals and dioxins.
“Recycling — if properly done — is costly,” Kuehr said. He said there were at least 700 containers of waste equipment waiting in ports in west Africa, part of a mountain of some 40 to 50 million tons of waste electrical and electronic equipment produced every year.
“And another problem is that equipment sent to developing nations for re-use will one day become obsolete and will need recycling,” he said. Almost no developing nations have modern waste plants.
The European Union, for instance, bans exports of electronic waste to countries that cannot dispose of scrap to EU standards. Even so, the world needs to find ways to enable poor nations to benefit from old equipment.
“Millions of old devices in North America and Europe could easily double their typical three- or four-year ‘first life’ by being put to use in classrooms and small business offices” in poor nations, said Ramzy Kahhat of Arizona State University.
He suggested a deposit to discourage consumers from keeping old gear in a basement or garage.
And some nations manage to recycle, Kahhat said. About 85 percent of used computers imported to Peru were put back into use. But 80 percent of devices imported for re-use to Nigeria, Pakistan and Ghana were simply scrapped.
In China alone, an estimated two million people were involved in informal e-waste collection, re-use and recycling.
“Though China has banned e-waste imports, it is still one of the world’s major dumping grounds for e-waste from other countries,” the statement said.
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Editing by Mark Trevelyan