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Region worst in world for e-waste management

New research by the United Nations University (UNU) has revealed Samoa has among the worst rates of e-waste generation in the region, producing 0.6 kilotonnes of e-waste in a year.

It means Samoans were producing 3.1 kilograms of e-waste per capita last year alone, with no national legislation to guide collection and recycling and low rates of collection by private enterprises.

Neighbouring Tonga has also shown poor rates, relative to its size. Last year it produced 3.3 kilograms of e-waste per capita or 0.3 kilo tonnes in 2019. 

The research, published last week, reveals Oceania as a whole has among the poorest rates of e-waste management per capita (16.1 kilograms, or 0.7 metric tonnes in 2019), second only to Europe with 16.2 kilograms. 

Oceania’s e-waste is worth US$0.7 billion in raw electronic materials, and equivalent to 1.0 metric tonnes of potential greenhouse gas emissions from fridges and air-conditioners.

Within the e-waste piles are 0.001 kilo tonnes of mercury and 1.1 kilo tonnes of Brominated Flame Retardants (chemicals that make products less flammable, which have been proven to have negative impacts on public health), that are not documented and managed properly.

The research estimates that of the 53.6 metric tonnes of e-waste generated last year, 82.6 per cent was undocumented, containing some 98 metric tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions. 

Just one country, Australia, among 12 analysed has a national management policy in place, and just 8.8 per cent of the region’s waste was collected and properly recycled.

Across the Pacific Island countries, the e-waste challenge is dire. Without much land for collection and recycling and the cost and burden of preparing and exporting e-waste abroad the region has chosen to work together to tackle the problem.

One e-waste collector, Asiata Potoi Peteli of One Scrap Metal in Samoa has been collecting for four years and has barely filled half a container. 

The Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (S.P.R.E.P.) has devised the Cleaner Pacific 2025 as a framework for cooperation on e-waste, as well as other waste management issues. 

“Recently, research has found that unregulated e-waste recycling is associated with increasing numbers of adverse health effects,” the research states.

“These include adverse birth outcomes, altered neurodevelopment, adverse learning outcomes, DNA damage, adverse cardiovascular effects, adverse respiratory effects, adverse effects on the immune system, skin diseases, hearing loss, and cancer.”

Australia’s legislation on e-waste is relatively thorough. There is a National Television and Computer Recycling Scheme, which provides around 98 per cent of the country with access to a collection service to take away their old electronics. 

The report found since 2011 when the regulations were instigated, Australia has collected and recycled more than 291 kilotonnes of television and computer e-waste.

Meanwhile in New Zealand, the government is still in the planning stages of legislation and a formal system across the country. Research estimates that 97 kilotonnes of e-waste reaches landfills every year.

Globally, the picture is yet more dire, and worth US$57 billion last year alone.

“In 2019 the world generated 53.6 million metric tons, and only 17.4 per cent of this was officially documented as properly collected and recycled. It grew with 1.8 metric tonnes since 2014, but the total e-waste generation increased by 9.2 metric tonnes,” the authors write. 

“This indicates that the recycling activities are not keeping pace with the global growth of e-waste.”

The research offers a glimmer of hope: that the data might inspire more energy towards creating a circular economy for e-waste, by recycling it properly, keeping it out of landfills and stopping harmful chemicals from leaking into the atmosphere.

“Methods employed to separate and recycle e-waste can be economically viable, especially if carried out manually, where the material losses are less than five percent.

“Separate collection and recycling of e-waste can thus be economically viable for products containing high concentrations and contents of precious metals.”

The researchers say iron, aluminium and copper are the majority of the raw waste materials, and should be recycled in an economically viable way, which would reduce the harmful extraction of these raw materials from the earth. 

“The demand of iron, aluminium, and copper for the production of new electronics in 2019 was approximately 39 metric tonnes.”

The Global E-waste Monitor 2020 was written by Vanessa Forti, Cornelis Peter Baldé, Ruediger Kuehr and Garam Bel.

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