India Business
Finding gold in the mountains of hi-tech scrap
Mar 7, 2007 - 9:27:12 AM

New Delhi, March 7 - The United Nations University together with the UN, industry and other partners is set to create standards for e-scrap recycling and reap a harvest of valuable components from the growing pile of e-waste across the globe.

This will be done under the global public-private initiative called solving the E-Waste Problem - launched Wednesday.

Valuable resources in every scrapped product with a battery or plug - computers, TVs, radios, MP3 players, toasters, hair-dryers, to name but a few - are being trashed in rising volumes worldwide.

Worse, items charitably sent to developing countries for re-use often ultimately remain unused for a host of reasons or are shipped by unscrupulous recyclers for illegal disposal.

But now efforts are being launched to standardise recycling processes globally and harvest valuable components in electrical and electronic scrap - under StEP.

Major high-tech manufacturers, including Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, Dell, Ericsson, Philips and Cisco Systems are joining the UN, governments, NGOs and academic institutions, along with recycling and refurbishing companies as charter members of the initiative.

'There's more than gold in those mountains of high-tech scrap,' says Ruediger Kuehr of the Tokyo-based United Nations University, which will host the StEP Secretariat in Bonn.

'This partnership is committed to salvaging these increasingly precious resources and preventing them from fouling the environment.'

In addition to well-known precious metals such as gold, palladium and silver, unique and indispensable metals have become increasingly important in electronics. Among them is indium, a by-product of zinc mining used in more than one billion products per year, including flat-screen monitors and mobile phones.

In the last five years, indium's price has increased six-fold, making it more expensive than silver. Though known mine reserves are limited, indium recycling is so far taking place in only a few plants in Belgium, Japan and the US.

'The large price spikes for all these special elements that rely on the production of metals like zinc, copper, lead or platinum underline that supply security at affordable prices cannot be guaranteed indefinitely unless efficient recycling loops are established to recover them from old products,' says Kuehr.

'This recycling of trace elements requires hi-tech processes but it is vital to do it. For manufacturers, improving the e-scrap recycling process is essential to ongoing production and repair operations.'

Unqualified or unscrupulous treatment of e-scrap is still going on in many developing countries. The inappropriate handling leads to a number of problems. Among these are the emissions of highly toxic dioxins, furans and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons -, caused by burning PVC plastic and wire insulation.

Soil and water contamination also arises from chemicals such as brominated flame retardants -; PCBs -; and lead, mercury, cadmium, zinc, chromium and other heavy metals -.

Studies show rapidly increasing concentrations of these heavy metals in humans. In sufficient dosages, they can cause neuro-developmental disorders and possibly cancer.

In many industrialising and developing countries - India being one among them - growing numbers of people earn a living from recycling and salvaging electronic waste.

In most cases, though, this is done through so-called 'backyard practices', often taking place under the most primitive circumstances, exposing workers to extensive health dangers.

The total annual global volume of e-scrap is soon expected to reach roughly 40 million tonnes-enough to fill a line of dump trucks stretching half way around the world.

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