Experts behind the world's first international e-waste academy have said that processes and policies governing the reuse and recycling of electronic products need to be standardized worldwide to stem and reverse the growing problem of illegal and harmful e-waste processing practices in developing countries.
Making appropriate recycling technologies available worldwide and standardizing government policy approaches to reuse and recycling could dramatically extend the life of many computers, mobile phones, TVs and similar products and allow for more complete end-of-life harvesting of the highly valuable metals and other components they contain.
"Rapid product innovations and replacements - the shift from analog to newer digital technologies and to flat-screen TVs and monitors, for example - is pushing every country to find more effective ways to cope with their e-waste," said Ruediger Kuehr of United Nations University, Executive Secretary of a global public-private initiative called Solving the E-Waste Problem (StEP).
Based in Bonn, Germany, StEP works with policy makers, industry, academia and other stakeholders.
"Millions of old devices in North America and Europe could easily double their typical three or four year 'first life' by being put to use in classrooms and small business offices across Africa, South America and Asia," said Ramzy Kahhat, Center for Earth Systems Engineering and Management at Arizona State University.
"An old Pentium II computer with an open-source operating system like Linux can run faster than some of the latest new models on store shelves," he added.
"It's vitally important, however, to get unwanted devices into re-use before they get too old and damaged to be re-conditioned," said Dr. Kahhat, who advocates a return deposit to discourage consumers from simply storing old equipment in a drawer, garage or basement.
An exhaustive study Dr. Kahhat conducted in 2008 in Peru found that more than 85 percent of used computers imported by that country were put back into service.
That record contrasts sharply with the alarming statistic from Nigeria, Pakistan and Ghana that roughly 80 percent of imported devices classified for reuse are simply scrapped.
Computers and other electronics that can no longer be used contain valuable materials when devices are properly dismantled and recycled.
Recovering these metals with state-of-the art recycling processes generates a small fraction of the CO2 emissions, land degradation and hazardous emissions caused by mining them.