First Latin American e-waste report covers 13 countries: Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, Uruguay, Venezuela
Electronic waste in 13 Latin American countries rose by 49% between 2010 and 2019, roughly the world average, but just 3% was collected and safely managed, a fraction of the 17.4% global average, according to the UN’s first assessment of Latin America’s e-waste volume, legislation, and management infrastructure.
In 2019, e-waste generated by 206 million citizens in the 13 countries reached 1,300,000 tonnes (1.3 megatonnes, of which almost 30% was plastic) – equal in weight to a 670 km line of fully-loaded 40-ton trucks. The comparable figure in 2010 was 900,000 tonnes, generated by about 185 million citizens.
While informal recyclers “cherry pick” some valuable elements from waste electronics and electrical equipment, some 97% is improperly managed; just 3% is known to be collected and treated in facilities using environmentally sound methods.
The findings are published in the “Regional E-waste Monitor for Latin America, Results for the 13 Countries Participating,” produced by the Sustainable Cycles (SCYCLE) Programme, co-hosted by the UN University (UNU) and the UN Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR).
It was developed under the ‘Strengthening of National Initiatives and Enhancement of Regional Cooperation for the Environmentally Sound Management of POPs in Waste of Electronic or Electrical Equipment (WEEE)‘ project (in Spanish: PREAL – Proyecto Residuos Electrónicos America Latina), funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and coordinated by the UN Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO).
“E-waste constitutes one of the fastest-growing streams of physical waste in today’s global environment and is a threat to sustainable development,” the report says.
However, few countries collect internationally-comparable e-waste statistics. This report was created with the cooperation of 13 countries to support and facilitate environmentally-sound management of e-waste in the region, says co-author Ruediger Kuehr, the Senior Manager of UNITAR SCYCLE (previously hosted by United Nations University).
The hazardous substances in the region’s e-waste comprises at least 2200 kg of mercury, 600 kg of cadmium, 4.4 million kg of lead, 4 million kg of brominated flame retardants, and 5.6 megatonnes of greenhouse gas-equivalents (due to refrigerants).
These substances “are poorly managed within the region and are likely to be untreated, generating various risks to the stability of a healthy environment,” according to the report.
Meanwhile, “managing e-waste could be an economic opportunity,” says co-author Kees Baldé, Senior Scientific Specialist at UNITAR SCYCLE. “The e-waste generated regionally in 2019 contained 7000 kg of gold, 310 kg of rare earth metals, 591 million kg of iron, 54 million kg of copper, and 91 million kg of aluminum, representing a total value of roughly US $1.7 billion of secondary raw materials.”
Key statistical findings
- On an average annual per capita basis, e-waste generation rose from 4.7 kilograms in 2010 to 6.7 kilograms in 2019, ranging from 13.2 kg in Costa Rica to 2.5 kg in Nicaragua.
- The volume of electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) placed on the market fluctuated between 2010 and 2019, from 1.7 Mt (1.7 million tonnes, or 8.9 kg per inhabitant) in 2010, to 1.9 Mt in 2017, and 1.7 Mt (8.1 kg per inhabitant) in 2019.
- One-third (33%) of the region’s e-waste consists of small equipment (e.g. microwaves, grills and toasters, speakers, cameras). The next largest categories: large equipment (e.g. dishwashers, washing machines, ovens, central heating systems) and temperature exchange equipment (e.g. fridges, freezers, air conditioners, heat pumps), each with 21%. One or two appliances in the latter categories are found in typical households – bulky, heavy appliances with long lifespans compared with small equipment, sold in higher numbers and more frequently discarded. The region’s smallest category in terms of e-waste generation is lamps (3% of the region’s e-waste weight).
- The volume of EEE plastic placed on the market decreased over the years, from 470,000 tonnes (2.49 kg/inh) in 2010 to 460,000 tonnes (2.22 kg/inh) in 2019 due to changes in technology, for example, from cathode ray tube (CRT) screens in computers and televisions to flat-panel displays, as well as material substitutions by manufacturers and shifting demand in some EEE categories.
- 380,000 tonnes of e-waste plastic was generated in the 13 countries in 2019, of which 31,000 tonnes contained toxic brominated flame retardants (BRF), suspected of causing neurobehavioral effects and endocrine disruption. Almost all of the plastics containing BRF are contained in just three e-waste categories: small equipment (16,000 tonnes), small IT (10,000 tonnes), and screens (5,000 tonnes)
- Data is unavailable on the volume of Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) in e-waste plastic managed in an environmentally-sound way.
- The countries in the study collected and managed a total of 36,000 tonnes (0.21 kg per inhabitant) of e-waste in 2019. (Guatemala data is being assessed but unavailable as the report went to press).
- Costa Rica has the highest e-waste collection of 8.0 percent (1.0 kg per inhabitant) of its total e-waste generated, followed by Chile with 5.0 percent (0.4 kg per inhabitant).
- Annual EEE growth rates are slowing but still positive in all categories except screens and monitors, the mass of which is dropping as heavy cathode ray tube (CRT) screens in computers and televisions are replaced on the market by substantially lighter flat-panel displays.
- Argentina, Costa Rica, and Chile manufacture EEE and their components domestically; all 10 other countries rely entirely on imports.
All 13 participating countries:
- have some legal and regulatory frameworks for waste management but only Bolivia, Chile, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Peru have instituted specific legislation for e-waste and Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) systems focusing on e-waste regulation.
- have hazardous waste regulation that includes POPs, but none has legislation specifically for POPs from e-waste.
- have ratified the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal, which controls the transboundary movement of e-waste, and enacted national bans on e-waste imports.
However, “the enforcement of these measures remains a significant challenge,” the report says, adding that many of the 13 countries do not submit transboundary movement reports to the Basel Convention, making monitoring and mapping difficult.
“Low quality of data and control of transboundary movement of e-waste through the Basel Convention poses a threat to the environmentally sound management of e-waste and illegal movements.”
The report calls on all countries in the region to introduce and enforce either:
a) a robust legal and policy framework focused on ESM of e-waste and POPs contained in e-waste, or
b) monitor and reinforce existing systems to make them more efficient and effective.
It adds that adequate financing and monitoring of the systems, and the cooperation of all stakeholders, are essential elements for setting up and sustaining successful policies.
The report concludes with detailed individual country profiles and elaborates on seven recommendations, headlined:
- Prevent more
- Be more aware
- Collect more
- Pollute less
- Pay adequately
- Work more safely, and
- Train more
Electrical and Electronic Equipment (EEE) encompasses all products powered by a battery or plug, including laptops, mobile phones, servers, fridges, washing machines, dishwashers, cooking and other kitchen appliances, many toys, and musical instruments. EEE is increasing rapidly, and spreading quickly in emerging sectors such as electric transport, clean energy production, and smart cities, which base their services on EEE and sensors.
The Regional E-waste Monitor for Latin America is produced by the Sustainable Cycles (SCYCLE) Programme and co-hosted by the United Nations University (UNU) and the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR), in partnership with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
This Regional E-waste Monitor was funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) within the framework of the ‘Strengthening of National Initiatives and Enhancement of Regional Cooperation for the Environmentally Sound Management of POPs in Waste of Electronic or Electrical Equipment (WEEE)’ project activities, known primarily as the PREAL (Proyecto Residuos Electrónicos América Latina Project) which is implemented by the United
Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO).
United Nations University (UNU)
UNU is an autonomous component of the UN General Assembly dedicated to generating and transferring knowledge and strengthening capacities relevant to global issues of human security, development, and welfare. The University
operates through a worldwide network of research and training centres and programmes, coordinated by the UNU Centre in Tokyo.
The United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR)
UNITAR is a dedicated training arm of the United Nations, with a mission of developing the individual, institutional, and organisational capacity of countries and other United Nations stakeholders through high quality learning solutions and related knowledge products and services as a means for enhancing global decision-making and providing support at the country level in overcoming global challenges.
The SCYCLE Programme, recently transitioned from UNU to UNITAR, envisions enabling societies to reduce the environmental load from production, use, and disposal of ubiquitous goods, especially EEE, to sustainable levels by means of independent, comprehensive, and practical research and training, providing more thorough fact bases for policy development and decision making. SCYCLE leads the global e-waste research and related trainings, and advances sustainable e-waste management strategies based on life-cycle thinking.
The United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO)
UNIDO has over 50 years’ experience of promoting and accelerating inclusive and sustainable industrial development (ISID) in Member States across the world. The Organization’s programmatic focus is mainly on creating shared prosperity, advancing economic competitiveness, safeguarding the environment and strengthening knowledge and institutions.
The Global Environment Facility (GEF)
The GEF has over 27 years of experience and focuses on helping tackle our planet’s most pressing environmental problems. GEF is an international partnership of 183 countries, international institutions, civil society organizations and the private sector that addresses global environmental issues in protected areas, promotes sustainable landscape and seascape, sustainable forest management and land management, GHG emission reduction, integrated water resources management, safe disposal of hazardous chemicals and the adaptation to climate change.