Waste management and a circular economy

Electronic waste – recycling valuable resources

Electronic waste

It is estimated that, around the world, about 50 million tonnes of electronic waste (e-waste) will be produced in the course of 2018. E-waste consists of items such as refrigerators, television sets, personal computers, mobile phones and batteries. In 2014, a total of some 42 million tonnes of e-waste was produced worldwide. In many developing and emerging countries volumes of e-waste are growing particularly rapidly. This is because of increasing prosperity, the spread of digital technologies, changing patterns of consumption and population growth, and also because e-waste is often illegally imported from the developed world.

Under the Basel Convention adopted in 1989 e-waste may not be exported to countries which do not have adequate recycling infrastructure. It is, however, permitted to export used appliances and they are often more affordable for the local population than new devices. Yet, sooner or later, these used appliances also end up contributing to the mountains of waste. Countries in the European Union exported an estimated 1.5 million tonnes of used electrical and electronic devices in 2012, including about 400,000 tonnes of e-waste.

Few official collection and recycling systems

Most developing and emerging countries lack both official systems for the collection of used appliances and the necessary regulatory framework and appropriate facilities for the recycling and disposal of e-waste. In most of these countries e-waste is collected and recycled by workers in the informal sector, for whom the materials, such as copper and gold, contained in electrical and electronic appliances are an important source of income.

However, precious metals are often recovered by means of very primitive methods, such as burning outdoors or using cyanide and mercury, posing considerable risks to human health and to the environment. It is important here to foster the expansion of local structures and the introduction of simple, efficient and environmentally friendly technologies for recovering metals.

German activities

The Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) supports its partner countries in putting in place socially and environmentally sound recycling systems. It advises partner countries in drafting waste and e-waste management laws and regulations, and supports local authorities in implementing them.

The BMZ also provides funding to foster dialogue between the public and the private sector (e.g. manufacturers and importers, those who collect and recycle waste), with a view to organising and funding proper e-waste collection and recycling systems. Active efforts are made, in particular, to include workers from the informal sector who carry out such work. The aim is to safeguard their livelihoods whilst simultaneously improving their working conditions.

At the same time, the industrialised countries need to do more to combat the illegal export of e-waste. The BMZ fosters international exchange on e-waste management solutions.

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