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Environmentalists call for smarter solutions to smartgadget disposal

March 5, 2010

The gadgets on show at this year's CeBIT computer fair are seductive - but when the time comes to upgrade, many of these devices will end up in landfill, posing an environmental hazard and wasting valuable resources.

A hall full of people using computers at the CeBIT computer trade fair in Hanover
Visitors to the CeBIT computer expo get excited about the new products on displayImage: Deutsche Messe Hannover

The world's largest computer trade fair CeBIT, in Hanover, is all about technological advances and innovation: the latest mobile phones, computers and other gadgets are all on show. What can't be seen, though, is just how much valuable metal and other resources are wasted when these electronic devices are not disposed of properly, nor the toll they may take on the environment when they end up in landfill.

As the amount of electronic waste produced each year rises, many are calling for more recycling initiatives to salvage these precious materials. Not only does this help the environment, it is a boon for the developing world, where the raw materials are often sourced under devastating conditions.

A worker crouches next to a large heap of electronic waste
Old computers and other electronic devices are a rich source of valuable metalsImage: AP

"You can really help reduce the mining of resources by recycling," said Steffen Holzmann, who leads an ecoIT project at German environmental organization Deutsche Umwelthilfe. "These materials, especially coltan and iridium, are only finite on our planet and that is why we try to close these flows of resources. This lets us continue to fulfill the demand for these materials." However, it is not possible to simply let mobile phones become disposable products, he said.

This problem of "disposable products" is fuelled in part by consumer attitudes. In 2008, 1.2 billion mobile phones were sold worldwide, along with 300 million computers. As newer and better gadgets are pushed into the market, older devices may become functionally obsolete, or consumers may feel they can no longer work effectively or keep up with friends or colleagues without the newest model.

But a market in which gadgets become "outdated" within just a year or two requires a greater focus on recycling initiatives.

Recycling saves twice

In Germany, Deutsche Umwelthilfe has joined with telecommunications company T-Mobile to initiate a collection campaign for old mobile phones. The phones can be sent in for free in order to be professionally recycled. Three euros per recycled phone go to Umwelthilfe-run environmental projects.

The gains to be had from collection campaigns such as this extend well beyond the financial: it is far easier to recycle the precious materials contained in e-waste than to mine raw materials.

Copper, for instance, is found in all electronic devices. In order to dig out a ton of copper from a mine, around a thousand tons of rock would need to be processed. But that same ton of copper can also be salvaged from just 14 tons of electronic waste.

Pile of disused mobile phones
Every ton of old mobile phones contains about one kg of silver and 300 grams of goldImage: AP

"A mobile phone is a really colorful mix of materials including very valuable materials such as copper and gold, but also on rare occasions metals like iridium and cobalt," Holzmann said.

In Sweden, a recycling project for old mobile phones and computers has been in place for years. About one kilogram of silver and three hundred grams of gold are tucked away in one ton of disused mobile phones, according to the organization Waste Sweden.

"The gold and silver mines in the city have replaced those in the ground," said Jan-Olof Eriksson, head of El-Kretsen, the company that collects and recycles electronic products in Sweden. "This way, existing resources can be used more effectively, because the material circulates several times."

Developing nations cannot cope with waste levels

But it's not just about salvaging precious resources: it's also a question of disposing of e-waste in an environmentally friendly manner. Uganda recently prohibited the import of used computers because the problems associated with their disposal had become overwhelming.

There is no recycling system in Uganda: on the outskirts of the capital Kampala, household rubbish, electronic and chemical waste all ends up in the dump.

Man standing next to heap of electronic rubbish
In the Ugandan capital Kampala electronic waste and household refuse end up in landfillImage: Simone Schlindwein

The country's environment authority does regularly take water samples in order to determine contamination in the water system, but it can't act: there is simply no system of separation and recycling. Officials have few options, other than to raise awareness of just how many hazardous substances are to be found in Ugandan water.

"What we find, for example, is that there are heavy metals which are above the national standards," said Onesmus Muhwezi, of the Ugandan environment authority. Lead levels are very high for instance, he said: "It's very alarming."

E-waste increasing at alarming rates

For an increasing number of industrial nations, recycling e-waste is big business, but very few developing nations have the technology and infrastructure necessary to properly dispose of their ever-growing piles of waste, which poses health and environmental problems. Many of the heavy metals found in batteries, for example, are thought to cause cancer, while others contaminate the ground water, earth and air.

The amount of e-waste produced worldwide is growing at an alarming rate, the United Nations Environment Program has warned. By the year 2020, the amount of e-waste will have seen a five-fold increase in China. In South Africa and India, the amount of e-waste is expected to double or even quadruple. Already, 2.3 million tons of electronic waste originates in China. Only the United States produces more.

Many environment organizations are calling for a worldwide redemption and recycling guarantee from the electronic devices' original producers. However, encouraging consumers to cut down on their own waste in the first place is also an important element.

Reusing devices minimizes environmental toll

"Of course, reusing is much more preferred to recycling," said Holzmann. "It's like this: if I can use a device for a longer period, I save the production of a new one. So the balance of energy and resources is better than retrieving in part the natural resources - it isn't possible, after all, to recover 100 percent - and then produce a new device with costly new energy expenditure."

For Holzmann and other environmentalists, the hope is that consumers will begin to reconsider whether they really need that new mobile phone or computer every 12 to 18 months. That may not be the message that exhibitors at CeBit will be spreading, however.

Author: Helle Jeppesen/sac/skt
Editor: Anke Rasper