9352 2010.2.25 Johan Combrink stands next a skip full of e-Waste. Old computers, monitors, keyboards, etc. are all processed at his Brakpan company. Equipment will either be re-conditioned and sold, or the components and materials re-cycled. He says business is soaring and in the last year he has become extremely busy. Picture: Cara Viereckl

Durban - The UN’s top environmental watchdog has warned about a growing tide of electronic waste that threatens to poison people and the environment worldwide.

Launching a new report titled “Waste Crimes”, UN Environment Programme (Unep) chief Achim Steiner said environmental crimes in many parts of the world were still viewed as “victimless crimes”, with perpetrators receiving relatively small fines.

However, a growing mountain of hazardous electronic waste posed serious risks to people and the environment at a time when as much as 90 percent of global e-waste from some parts of the world was being dumped or traded illegally.

“We are facing an unprecedented amount of electronic waste around the world,” said Steiner.

“Not only does it account for a large proportion of the world’s non-recyclable waste mountain, but it also poses a growing threat to human health and the environment, due to the hazardous elements it contains.”

The Unep report noted that 25 tons of mobile phones could yield up to 10kg of gold and it was estimated the global waste market was now worth nearly US $410-billion a year.

“Concentrated on making profit, operators are prone to ignore waste regulations and expose workers to toxic chemicals.”

Africa and Asia had been targeted for large-scale shipments of hazardous waste – for dumping or recycling – despite EU measures to ban such exports.

As a result, thousands of tons of e-waste were falsely declared as second-hand-goods when they were exported to developing countries. Waste batteries were described as plastic or mixed-metal scrap while TV cathode ray tubes and computer monitors were listed as metal scrap.

The report also gave examples of hazardous substances in mobile phones, including arsenic, chromium, manganese, fluorine, lead or potassium hydroxide. In several developing countries, recycling workers were exposed to poisoning as they physically dismantled televisions, mobile phones and other e-waste using chisels, hammers, screwdrivers or bare hands. Components from printed circuit boards were often removed by heating them over coal-fired grills. Metals were stripped in open-pit acid baths to recover gold and other metals, while plastics were often chipped or melted without proper ventilation.

At the end of this informal recycling process, the residue was dumped in fields or next to river banks.

Several case analyses had revealed legal players were also deeply involved in illegal or fraudulent waste recycling and dumping. Examples highlighted in the Unep report included the dumping of truckloads of chemicals including mercaptans and phenols in several poor suburbs of Abidjan, Ivory Coast, in August 2006. The chemical waste was shipped by a European company aboard the vessel Probo Koala.

The dumping came to light when residents awoke to a suffocating stench.

The Mercury