Stepping Up

The United Nations has formed an international alliance of private companies and government agencies in an effort to increase public awareness of the growing global electronic waste (e-waste) stream and to address its potential hazardous effects on the environment.

The Solving the E-Waste Problem (StEP) initiative consists of three U.N. agencies, several government bodies, 16 companies — including Cisco Systems, Dell, Hewlett Packard, Microsoft and Phillips — and schools such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and United Nations University. These organizations will team up to increase recycling efforts and find ways to extend the useful lives of electronic products.

StEP is looking to establish a set of international guidelines for disposing of e-waste, also called e-scrap, using existing legislation passed in Japan, the European Union and the United States. The goal of the guidelines will be to maximize the recovery of precious metals used in manufacturing and to ensure the safe handling of recovered substances. StEP is also involved in a large-scale project to help China safely dismantle and dispose of its domestic e-scrap.

“The e-waste problem will ultimately take global participants because there are so many electronics out there,” says Eric Harris, director of governmental and international affairs for the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, Washington.

Under StEP, five task forces will conduct research and analysis and facilitate pilot projects. The task forces will focus on policy and legislation, product redesign, product reuse, product recycling and capacity building.

Greg Vogt, managing director of the Denmark-based International Solid Waste Association (ISWA), says his organization is in favor of the initiative and that it parallels ISWA's mission to promote sustainable global waste management and to support programs that exchange information and practical solutions to managing the solid waste stream.

According to StEP, inappropriate handling of e-scrap leads to the release of hazardous materials. For instance, incineration of the PVC plastic and wire insulation used in most electronic devices creates emissions of highly toxic dioxins, furans and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Meanwhile, soil and water can be contaminated by the PCBs and heavy metals, such as lead, zinc and mercury, used in computer monitors, televisions and other devices.

The National Solid Wastes Management Association, Washington, and the Solid Waste Association of North America, Silver Springs, Md., both say recycling and reuse are the preferred methods of handling e-waste, but also say the material can be disposed of in U.S. Subtitle D landfills.

The European Environmental Agency calculates that e-scrap volume is increasing nearly three times faster than other municipal waste, with the total annual amount of global e-waste expected to soon reach 40 million metric tons.

“The efficient, cost-effective and environmentally sound recovery of metals from complex electronic components requires large-scale, hi-tech processes,” says Hugo Morel, executive vice president of Unicore Precious Metals Services, Belgium. Unicore is a StEP member that specializes in such processes. Morel adds that the organized collection, sorting, dismantling and pre-processing of e-waste requires trained labor and will create many job opportunities worldwide.

Critics of StEP, such as the Basel Action Network, a Seattle-based environmental watchdog, argue the initiative is designed to exploit cheap foreign labor and undermines international law established following the U.N. Basel Convention in 1992.

Harris disagrees, citing the safeguards created by a global recycling management chain.

“This can be done safely and responsibly,” he says.