UN says 'e-waste' problem growing fast

A new report predicts that the amount of electrical waste will balloon to 72 million tons in the next 4 years

Discarded, outdated CRT (Cathode Ray Tube) TV sets to be recycled are stacked at a yard in the city of Zhuzhou in China's Hunan province, on Aug. 26, 2013.

The mountain of refrigerators, cellphones, TV sets and other electrical waste disposed of annually worldwide is forecast to grow by a third by 2017, mostly in developing nations, according to a U.N. study released Sunday.

E-waste — defined as anything with a battery or a cord — can pose a big problem because it often contains substances that are harmful to humans and the environment if not properly disposed of. On the other hand, some of it can be profitably recycled.

The U.N. initiative Solving the E-Waste Problem — or StEP — based in Bonn, Germany, estimates that the amount of e-waste will rise from almost 53.9 million tons in 2012 to 72.1 million tons in 2017 (PDF). That's nearly 200 times the weight of the Empire State Building.

The U.S. dumped the most last year, generating 10.3 million tons of e-waste, followed by China with 8 million tons.

But China is catching up, evidenced by the fact that it had the highest volume of electrical goods put on the market last year with 12.2 million tons. The U.S. had about 11 million tons.

Taken together, developing and emerging countries already produce as much e-waste as the developed world, according to Ruediger Kuehr, who heads the StEP Initiative.

"There is a hunger of humankind for technology that makes our lives easier," Kuehr told The Associated Press. "It's not only the communication technologies but also medical devices, washing machines and e-toys that are very popular around Christmas time."

The report, which based its findings on estimates of how long such products last and hard data on discarded products in several countries, is the first study which includes e-waste estimates from most countries around the world, he said.

It was published in tandem with a study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the U.S. National Center for Electronics Recycling tracking the flow of electronic scrap across borders.

The study found that mobile phones are the most common item of e-waste in the U.S. About 120 million phones were discarded in 2010. Many of those ended up going to be dumped in Hong Kong, Latin America and the Caribbean.

The authors of the study called for better monitoring of e-waste exports, saying lack of consistent categories makes it hard to formulate effective rules for the treatment of electrical junk.

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press

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