U.N. Seeks to Solve Growing Global E-Waste Problem

Some electronics can harm people if they aren't discarded properly.

A new report from the United Nations found global electronic waste could grow by 33 percent by 2017.
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In just five years, all of the world's refrigerators, televisions, cell phones, computers and electronic devices destined for disposal or recycling will grow by 33 percent, according to a study released by the United Nations Sunday.

The mountain of used electrical and electronic devices, known as "e-waste," is expected to grow from 48.9 million metric tons worldwide in 2012 to 65.4 million metric tons in 2017; the weight equivalent of 200 Empire State Buildings or 11 Great Pyramids of Giza, the study says.

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"Although there is ample information about the negative environmental and health impacts of primitive e-waste recycling methods, the lack of comprehensive data has made it hard to grasp the full magnitude of the problem," said Ruediger Kuehr, executive secretary of the U.N.'s Solving the E-Waste Problem (StEP) Initiative, which conducted the study.

E-waste is harmful to the environment, the StEP Initiative notes on its website, because those products can contain toxic substances. When those electronic products are burned or put in a landfill, those toxic substances - such as mercury, cadmium and lead - can seep out.

The United States topped the list of the 184 countries analyzed for the total volume of e-waste generated each year, at 9.4 million tons in 2012; followed by China, with 7.2 million tons. By comparison, the U.S. Environment Protection Agency reported the U.S. generated 1.9 million to 2.2 million tons of e-waste in 2005.

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The United States might have had such a higher volume, the report says, because there have been more electronic products put on the market in the past and therefore more are now ready to be retired. In 2012, for example, the United States put about 10 million tons of electrical and electronic equipment on the market, compared with about 1 million tons in Canada.

Additionally, the amount of e-waste generated per person in the United States was much higher than other countries.

In 2012, each person generated about 30,000 kilograms of e-waste in the United States, compared with 5.4 kilograms in China.

A separate study published in tandem with the U.N. report tracked the flow of electronic disposal and collection across borders.

That study, conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the U.S. National Center for Electronics Recycling, found cell phones accounted for the largest quantity of used electronics in the United States.

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The study's authors recommend creating trade codes that can be used to track electronic products.

"We cannot possibly manage complex, transboundary e-waste flows until we have a better understanding of the quantities involved and the destinations," said Joel Clark, an MIT professor, in a statement. "This research is an important first step in that direction."

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