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The need for a global standard on e-waste
Toxic fumes from the Agbogbloshie scrap yard in Ghana. (Photo: Muntaka Chasant, via Wikimedia Commons)

According to the global e-waste monitor 2020, in 2019, the world generated a striking 53,6 Mt of electrical and electronic waste, an average of 7,3 kg per capita. The global generation of e-waste grew by 9,2 Mt since 2014 and is projected to grow to 74,7 Mt by 2030 – almost doubling in only 16 years.

The monitor also underlines the inequality of e-waste disposal. In middle- and low-income countries, the e-waste management infrastructure is not yet fully developed or, in some cases, is entirely absent. Hence, e-waste is managed mostly by what some pundits call “the informal” sector. In this case, e-waste is often handled under inferior conditions, causing severe health effects to workers as well as to the children who often live, work and play near e-waste management activities.

According to the monitor, while discarded products can sometimes still be refurbished and reused, and thus are usually shipped as second-hand products from high-income to low- or middle-income countries, a considerable amount of e-waste is still exported illegally or under the guise of being for reuse or pretending to be scrap metal. It can be assumed that the volume of transboundary movements of used EEE or e-waste ranges from 7 to 20% of the e-waste generated.

European standards

In Europe, the European Committee for Electrotechnical Standardization (CENELEC) has published the EN 50625 / EN 50614 series of standards on waste of electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) based on the EU WEEE 2012 Directive which addresses producers and importers of EEE in Europe. The standards define the collection, logistics and treatment requirements, as well as preparation for re-use of WEEE.

Many other countries such as Japan, China and the US have their own standards when it comes to e-waste. In developing nations, legislation often exists. In Ghana for instance, the Hazardous and Electronic Waste Control and Management Act was adopted in 2016. All EEE and tires coming into Ghana must pay an eco-Levy, ranging from 0.15 $/product up to 15 $/product.

The act was truly enforced from 2018 onwards so the impact it may have is very recent. Ghana is also home to the infamous Agbogbloshie scrap metal yard that has achieved international notoriety for the improper manner in which e-waste is processed. Methods of waste processing – especially burning – emit toxic chemicals into the air, land and water. Exposure is especially hazardous to children, as these toxins are known to inhibit the development of the reproductive system, the nervous system, and especially the brain. Concerns about human health and the environment of Agbogbloshie continue to be raised as the area remains heavily polluted, even if the government of Ghana has taken a series of measures to improve the situation.

There is therefore an identified need to extend the reach of existing transnational standards, such as the EN 50625// EN 50614 series, to include developing nations and get their input on requirements as they are affected by e-waste both in beneficial (re-use of equipment) and detrimental ways (pollution, health hazards).

Input from developing nation needed

Under the guidance of its CENELEC mirror committee, IEC Technical Committee 111, which prepares international environmental standards inside the IEC, has decided to study a work new item with the aim of developing such a global standard on e-waste. It is early days yet and the task force in charge of the proposal, headed by Christian Dworak, welcomes input from all venues, and especially from developing nations.

“Electrical and electronic products are produced and sold worldwide. E-waste does not stop at European boarders. There is a need for a worldwide basic scenario on the treatment and the preparation for reuse of e-waste. Today we have many worldwide standards produced by the IEC which deal with the ecofriendly design of electrical and electronic products. This is a very good starting point. With the new project we want to ensure that all the efforts made in the design phase will continue when dealing with the end of life of products. In order to lever the full effects of a circular economy we should focus on putting into place high quality end of life treatment processes.”

Inside the IEC, many developing nations are members, for instance Ghana, Kenya and Nigeria. In addition, the IEC launched the affiliate country programme, which offers countries a form of participation in the IEC without the financial burden of actual membership, making full use of IEC 100% electronic environment. 84 countries take part in the IEC through this specific programme from Burundi to Zimbabwe.

However, very few technical committees are headed by Chairs from developing nations and input on standard development from these nations is not always forthcoming. One of the objectives of Christophe Garnier, when he became Chair of IEC TC 111 in 2018, was to encourage and push for developing nation involvement.

“The most active countries in our TC are mainly based in the northern hemisphere. I would like to encourage all our members to take part in a proactive manner. Everyone can contribute – we must get more feedback from a higher number of developing nations as well, especially on environmental issues, as their input will be crucial as we move forward,” he said.

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