Our Perspective


Our Smart devices deserve smarter endings

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ewaste dumpBecause E-waste contains precious metals such as gold, silver, copper and nickel which can be recovered, recycled and used as a valuable source of secondary raw materials, it has given rise to a backyard urban mining industry

It’s a Smart world isn’t it? From smart watches that browse the internet to the billions of mobile phones currently in use globally, the tech innovations of the 21st century have radically transformed our lives, some of it for the better, in the span of a decade. It’s no wonder that the global appetite for electronic devices continues to grow exponentially. Behind the sheen of this tech-revolution, however, is at least one grisly truth that very few of us are thinking about: where do our Smart devices go at the End of Life?

Across the world, landfills or open dumps are brimming with microchips and circuit boards, which release toxic chemicals into the air, water and soil. Electronic waste, or E-waste as it’s called, is one of the world’s fastest growing waste streams today, standing at 41 million tonnes in 2014, and growing as fast as our appetite for consumer-tech. 

What’s worse, this is just a tip of the iceberg.

Up to 90% of the world's electronic waste is illegally traded (shipped as “spare parts” to developing countries) or dumped each year. The value of this illegal trade is estimated at US$19 billion. However, quite often much of the waste is incinerated by backyard recyclers, often involving children and women, to recover valuable metals, causing releases and emission of cancer-causing dioxins and furans, PBDEs, Mercury which can remain in our bodies through a lifetime, and can persist in the environment for decades.

Because E-waste contains precious metals such as gold, silver, copper and nickel which can be recovered, recycled and used as a valuable source of secondary raw materials, it has given rise to a backyard urban mining industry which yields a 10-40 times higher recovery rate than conventional mining, but nonetheless lacks the safe disposal of residual materials.  

In June 2016, participants from over 13 countries gathered in China to explore innovative solutions that tackle our rising mountains of E-waste. With UNDP GEF support, China has pioneered a public-private partnership that sees E-waste collected at the household level to be recycled or reused, before being disposed of safely. At the heart of the success of this initiative is the systematic environmentally safe and sound segregation, treatment and disposal of E-waste.  

In order to turn this emerging challenge into new economic opportunities for local communities, while also protecting human health and the environment, UNDP has been supporting countries to implement projects for the sound management of chemicals.

With the fast-paced advances we’re seeing in tech, the lifetimes of devices are becoming shorter, with consumers replacing them at a faster rate. Since so much of the world is connected through digital devices, as global citizens, shouldn’t every one of us be a part of the solution in tackling E-waste? What can you do? Well, for one, try make your phones and laptops go longer, and re-evaluate before you buy your next one. When you buy a new one, ask if the producers or retailers take the responsibility of recycling and disposal of the products. When you dispose, look for your local recycling pick up or drop off of the used E-products.

Check out this list of what else we can do.




Blog post Chemicals and waste management Sustainable development Asia & the Pacific