Public Release: 

US EPA joins alliance to curb global e-waste

EPA grant will help track, recycle and properly manage millions of end-of-life computers, TVs and cell phones destined for Africa, Asia

United Nations University

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Credit: EMPA

The US Environmental Protection Agency is stepping up international efforts to help curb rising pollution, the waste of natural resources, and health problems associated with trashed electronics, announcing today a new agreement with the United Nations University.

A five-year, $2.5 million grant to UNU's Institute for Sustainability and Peace (UNU-ISP) will help authorities track shipments of North American e-waste and provide support to nations in both Africa and Asia coping with e-waste imports.

The EPA will collaborate on ways to improve the production, recycling and final disposal of electronic products with members of the UNU-led StEP (Solving the E-Waste Problem) initiative, based in Bonn, Germany. Public and private sector members include the Secretariat of the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal, NGOs and others.

In a November 2010 Presidential Proclamation, US President Barack Obama noted that the increasing use of electronics and technology in homes and society raises the risk of improper handling and disposal of these products.

"Currently, most discarded consumer electronics end up in our landfills or are exported abroad, creating potential health and environmental hazards and representing a lost opportunity to recover valuable resources such as rare earth minerals," he said.

Recovering many valuable, and indeed now critical, metals in e-waste -- such as tin, indium, palladium and cobalt -- could be boosted by better end-of-life management.

Experts estimate that recycling 1 million cell phones can recover about 24 kg (50 lb) of gold, 250 kg (550 lb) of silver, 9 kg (20 lb) of palladium, and more than 9,000 kg (20,000 lb) of copper. Despite these benefits, e-waste is the fastest-growing sector of the US waste stream and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has accorded top priority to used electronics and e-waste handling.

Objectives under the 5-year agreement with UNU include:

  • Characterization of the nature of the flows of used electronics, including routes by which used electronics are leaving the country and an assessment of methodologies that may be used to quantify the amounts;

  • Harmonization of international efforts, including research, tracking, data collection, analysis and information sharing;

  • Science-based pilot and demonstration projects for e-waste refurbishment and disposal;

  • Environmentally sound e-waste management and addressing at borders enforcement issues related to illegal e-waste shipments;

  • Fostering international cooperation to ensure highest recycling efficiency and appropriate treatment of critical components in e-waste processed in both developing countries and economies in transition ("Best of Two Worlds" approach).

Initial plans call for collaboration with port officials in West Africa and Asia to support the objectives of characterizing flows of used electronics and harmonizing international information.

Quotable quotes

UN Under Secretary General Konrad Osterwalder, Rector of UNU: "We are honored to partner with the US EPA to advance research, share knowledge and promote innovative approaches to solving the e-waste problem in developed and developing countries alike. All too often today, unwanted electronics wind up among regular household trash, leading to health-threatening incineration or wasteful land-filling. The rapid pace at which electronic products are being replaced compels all countries to find effective ways to cope responsibly with their e-waste and recover the valuable resources within."

US-EPA Assistant Administrator for the Office of International and Tribal Affairs Michelle DePass: "The electronics that improve our everyday lives often end up discarded in developing countries where improper disposal can threaten local people and the environment. EPA recognizes this urgent concern and is committed to working with domestic and international partners, such as UN University's StEP Initiative, to address issues related to e-waste. EPA is pleased to be a leader of a US government task force on electronics stewardship, alongside the White House and our General Services Administration, to develop a strategy and steps for the public and private sectors to manage electronics in ways that safeguard human health and the environment."

Jinhui Li, StEP Steering Committee & Executive Secretary Basel Convention Coordinating Centre for Asia and the Pacific "This grant agreement with US-EPA is another milestone for StEP. It will substantially support StEP and its members to quantify and qualify the e-waste problem in its many facets. It will also help to further develop and coordinate joint activities with key-stakeholders in developing, transition and (post-)industrialized countries towards science based but practical oriented recommendations for sustainable policy making and pilot-projects."

Kazuhiko Takeuchi, Vice Rector of UNU: "In learning to manage e-waste, we need to reflect many inter-connected socio-economic and environmental factors, such as the impact of today's economic crisis and digital divide issues, and to promote closed-loop, resource-circular societies. These cooperation development activities led by UNU co-founded StEP will help developing countries find their own way to globally sound e-waste management".

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United Nations University (www.unu.edu)

UNU is an autonomous organ of the UN General Assembly dedicated to generating and transferring knowledge and strengthening capacities relevant to global issues of human security, development, and welfare. The University operates through a worldwide network of research and training centres and programmes, coordinated by UNU Centre in Tokyo.

StEP (www.step-initiative.org)

Solving the E-Waste Problem is a partnership of several UN organizations, prominent industry, government and international organizations, NGOs and the science sector. StEP initiates and facilitates sustainable e-waste handling through analysis, planning and pilot projects.

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