Toxic Tech: Not in Our Backyard

Publication - February 22, 2008
Greenpeace is challenging manufacturers of electronic goods to take responsibility for the entire lifecycle of their products, from production, through manufacture and to the very end of their products’ lives. Only in this way can we ensure that the dangerous tide of toxic e-waste can be stemmed, and that the hidden flow of e-waste does not become a problem in anybody’s backyard.

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Executive summary: A dangerous new waste stream is rapidly emerging. Greenpeace has commissioned the report, Toxic Tech: Not in Our Backyard, to investigate the global sales of electrical and electronic products and assess the amount of waste arising from this. The UN estimates that some 20 to 50m tonnes of e-waste are generated worldwide each year, comprising more than 5% of all municipal solid waste. The fate of large quantities of this so-called e-waste is unknown. This “hidden flow” is the e-waste that escapes responsible collection, reuse and recycling systems and as such is unaccounted for. While some might be found stored in attics or garages or disposed of with mixed waste in landfills and incinerators, thousands more electrical and electronic products that have reached the end of their lives are exported, often illegally, for dumping in Africa or for rudimentary recovery by Asian informal recyclers. There, workers at scrap yards - some of whom are children – are exposed to a cocktail of toxic chemicals when the products are broken apart, and as water, air and soil are polluted. The quantities of e-waste generated are predicted to grow substantially in the future, both in industrialised countries and in developing countries, which are expected to triple their e-waste by 2010. The rich countries often legally or illegally divert this problem from their own backyards. The hidden flow of e-waste that results causes environmental damage in the backyards and scrapyards of poorer countries. Ultimately, the principle of producer responsibility, which requires producers to take financial and/or management responsibility for their products when they reach the end-of-life phase, needs to be at the core of any measures to address the e-waste problem. The escalating e-waste problem makes it imperative to also address the source, the design of electrical and electronic products. Greenpeace continues to push the major electronics makers to: - Embrace the principle of ‘Individual Producer Responsibility’; where companies take financial responsibility for their products once discarded by customers. Individual producer responsibility calls for the cost of waste management to be incorporated into the product price, enacting the “polluter pays” principle and by differentiating between companies it motivates them to improve the environmental design of the products. - Design out toxics; clean up their products by eliminating hazardous substances, replacing harmful ingredients through use of safer alternatives or design changes. Greenpeace believes that the e-waste crisis should not be regarded only as a waste management issue but that the solution also lies in product design. Greenpeace is challenging manufacturers of electronic goods to take responsibility for the entire lifecycle of their products, from production, through manufacture and to the very end of their products’ lives. Only in this way can we ensure that the dangerous tide of toxic e-waste can be stemmed, and that the hidden flow of e-waste does not become a problem in anybody’s backyard.

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