OSLO - A new international project will try to track discarded U.S. cellphones, TVs and other electronic waste to help recycle everything from gold to rare earths and protect human health, U.S. and U.N. officials said on Sunday.
Many electronic items end up at the bottom of drawers at home when they break or get outdated. Many are shipped abroad for recycling. Others get dumped in normal trash bins and vanish into landfills or are incinerated, releasing toxins.
Only about 10 to 15 percent get recycled properly, said Ruediger Kuehr, executive secretary of StEP (Solving the E-Waste Problem), a project led by the U.N. University that works with firms such as Dell and Nokia.
"Tracking flows around the world ... is fundamental to work out solutions," he told Reuters of $2.5 million in new funds over five years announced on Sunday from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to help track U.S. electronic waste.
The project will work with port officials in West Africa and Asia to try to estimate flows of everything from flat screen televisions to computers sent to developing nations for repair or recycling. Health laws in such nations are often lax.
It will also seek to harmonize "international efforts, including research, tracking, data collection, analysis and information sharing," StEP and the EPA said.
"Electronics is the fastest growing waste stream in the United States," Stephanie Adrian of the EPA told Reuters. She said that just under half U.S. states have takeback laws obliging manufacturers to recycle.
High gold price
"We don't have enough information," about where electronics end up, she told Reuters. "The U.S. and the European Union are trying hard to better assess what our own volumes are."
High prices for metals, with gold above $1,500 an ounce and with worries about Chinese dominance of supplies of rare earths, make recycling more attractive.
A million cellphones can yield 24 kg (53 lb) of gold, 250 kg of silver, 9 kg of palladium and more than 9 tonnes of copper, according experts quoted by the Bonn-based StEP. In 2006, about a billion cellphone were sold worldwide.
"If you ask your friends how many mobile phones they have in their drawers at home you will easily have rather impressive numbers," Kuehr said.
In November 2010, U.S. President Barack Obama urged more focus on electronic waste. "Most discarded consumer electronics end up in our landfills or are exported abroad, creating potential health and environmental hazards and representing a lost opportunity to recover valuable resources such as rare earth minerals," he said.