Latin America: On the Way towards Legal E-Waste Frameworks

As a result of technological innovation – the trend to upgrade devices and products’ ever-shorter life span – e-waste is now the largest growing flow of waste. In 2012, the world’s biggest generators of e-waste were the United States, China, Japan, Germany, and Russia, with quantities ranging between 1.5 and 9.4 million metric tons.

An obvious solution, already in place, is to recycle. Most recycling of used electrical or electronic goods is carried out informally in developing countries: According to the International Labour Organization, 80 percent of the e-waste that is collected and sent for recycling in developed countries – mainly the US – ends up being shipped to developing countries. In Latin America, countries both produce and import e-waste, forming an intra-regional flow that exists mostly on the margins of regulation.

Smail Alhilali of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) says the export of e-waste to the developing world “often leads to obsolete products being recycled in poor, marginalized areas using risky, rudimentary techniques”. Informal sector workers are usually the first victims of this practice because, Alhilali explains, “being unaware of the dangers, they are exposed to health risks, ranging from inhalation of toxic fumes to dermal exposure. In addition, toxic substances, including POPs, are being released into the atmosphere, causing environmental damage that could be avoided with the right regulation in place.”

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Alfredo Cueva, UNIDO Industrial Development Officer, says, “Due to the region’s accelerated economic growth and level of development, the amount of e-waste is growing even faster than in other regions”. Cueva cites Brazil as an example, explaining that it “was the sixth biggest generator of e-waste in the world in 2012, with 7.1 kilogram of e-waste generated per person that year“. Cueva goes on to say that e-waste has become a very prominent issue on national agendas across Latin America. “Private sector and civil society organizations have a growing interest in solving the e-waste problem. This is not only due to political pressure and public concerns about the hazardous components of e-waste, but also due to the attractive business opportunities that e-waste management offers. Increasingly Latin American countries are seeing e-waste management as a generator of new green enterprises and employment.”

Of particular concern in Latin America is the smuggling and informal collection and dismantling of e-waste, which leads to unfair competition and unpredictable dangers. This, UNIDO’s Cueva argues, “can be addressed by having the right systems in place, including policies and regulations, e-waste service providers, sound financing and properly functioning markets, appropriate technology and skills, societies that are well-informed and aware, and, of course, good monitoring, control and enforcement bodies”.

According to the Solving the E-waste Problem (StEP) Initiative, around one third of the countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have so far established regulatory instruments related to e-waste. Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica and Peru are regional leaders, while others are on their way towards developing and implementing legal frameworks.

New project

Currently, UNIDO is developing a project titled „Strengthening of National Initiatives and Enhancement of Regional Cooperation for the Environmentally Sound Management of POPs in Waste of Electronic or Electrical Equipment (WEEE) in Latin American Countries“. The project will be implemented in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela. It is co-funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF), national bodies and the private sector.

With this project, UNIDO will assist the 13 countries both technically and financially, advising on policies, business, legislation, technology and awareness-raising. At the national level, it will help to strengthen policies and train technicians and public officials, developing information and awareness. It will also scale up existing infrastructure or establish new infrastructure where needed. At the regional level, it will work towards harmonizing key aspects of e-waste policies, strengthening regional cooperation, knowledge management and information exchange systems.

Photo: O. Kürth