Electronic waste in landfill site

Almost all e-waste in Latin America is ‘improperly managed’, says UN report

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The United Nations’ first assessment of Latin America’s e-waste volume, legislation, and management infrastructure has found that 97 per cent of its electronic waste is ‘improperly managed’.

According to the report, e-waste in 13 Latin American countries analysed rose by 49 per cent between 2010 and 2019, roughly the world average, but just three per cent was collected and safely managed, a fraction of the 17.4 per cent global average.

In 2019, e-waste generated by 206 million citizens in the 13 countries reached 1,300,000 tonnes (1.3 megatonnes, of which almost 30 per cent was plastic) – equal in weight to a 670km line of fully loaded 40-ton trucks. The comparable figure in 2010 was 900,000 tonnes, generated by about 185 million citizens.

The 13 countries included in the study were Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, El Salvador, Uruguay, and Venezuela.

While informal recyclers “cherry-pick” some valuable elements from waste electronics and electrical equipment, some 97 per cent is improperly managed; just three per cent is collected and treated in facilities using environmentally sound methods.

The findings are published in the ‘Regional E-waste Monitor for Latin America, Results for the 13 Countries Participating’ report produced by the Sustainable Cycles (SCYCLE) Programme, co-hosted by the UN University (UNU) and the UN Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR).

“E-waste constitutes one of the fastest-growing streams of physical waste in today’s global environment and is a threat to sustainable development,” the report said.

The report found that hazardous substances in the region’s e-waste comprises at least 2,200kg of mercury, 600kg of cadmium, 4.4 million kg of lead, 4 million kg of brominated flame retardants, and 5.6 megatonnes of greenhouse gas equivalents (because of refrigerants).

These substances “are poorly managed within the region and are likely to be untreated, generating various risks to the stability of a healthy environment,” according to the report.

Meanwhile, “managing e-waste could be an economic opportunity,” said Kees Baldé, senior scientific specialist at UNITAR. “The e-waste generated regionally in 2019 contained 7,000kg of gold, 310kg of rare-earth metals, 591 million kg of iron, 54 million kg of copper, and 91 million kg of aluminium, representing a total value of roughly $1.7bn (£1.3bn) of secondary raw materials.”

The report called on all countries in the region to introduce and enforce either a robust legal and policy framework focused on environmental sound management (ESM) of e-waste and persistent organic pollutants (POPs) contained in e-waste, or monitor and reinforce existing systems to make them more efficient and effective.

It added that adequate financing and monitoring of the systems, and the cooperation of all stakeholders, are essential elements for setting up and sustaining successful policies.

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