Wednesday, October 22, 2008


Vol.4 Week 43 22/10/2008
Halting the spread of hazardous electronic waste?
by Lam Cheuk Yi
Technology has been a positive influence on global economic development over the past two decades, but its byproduct – electronic goods waste (e-waste) – has reached what some now regard is a crisis point. The United Nations estimates that approximately 20 million to 50 million tons of chemical e-waste are generated annually, or more than 5 per cent of all municipal solid waste. The question here is not so much how much e-waste is created (although it is clearly a great deal), but more a question of where it all goes and the consequences of inadequate disposal of e-waste.

More than 1,000 hazardous substances constitute e-waste, such as components like batteries and mercury, which result in land, water and air pollution upon disposal. Such substances are contained across the entire range of electronic products; from household appliances such as refrigerators and air conditioners to personal products such as mobile phones and computers. Personal users account for a substantial amount of e-waste; according to a Greenpeace study, there are 2 billion mobile phone users globally, with an additional 96 million units sold during the first half of 2008 in China alone. Sales of other electronic devices are growing globally from 10 to 400 per cent per annum, which has seen e-waste rise at commensurate levels. Additionally, the shorter life and thus more rapid replacement of electronic appliances is generating e-waste more quickly. Companies and consumers will both need to change their ways if we want save our natural habitat as well as the health of future generations.

Although European Union (EU) legislation prohibits the export of dangerous waste to non-OECD countries, and the Basel Ban seeks to control the transfer of hazardous waste from developed to less-developed countries by EU member states, it is estimated that 70 per cent of e-waste is shipped to or treated in poorer Asian and African countries. In fact, a UN report in 2007 concluded that almost all e-waste ends up in five developing countries; Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, China and Myanmar. Solutions will need to be broader ranging than just regulatory.

One of the alternatives to legislation is recycling. The traditional approach to recycling used to be the so-called three Rs: reducing, reusing and recycling. However, recycling electronic goods involves exposure to dangerous metals, such as lead, mercury and cadmium. These not only cause harm to humans, but they can also negatively impact ecosystems if they are improperly handled or disposed of. In order to deal with this shortcoming, some people have added two more Rs: RoHS, and research and development (R&D).

The first of the alternative Rs is RoHS, the Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive. This R was imposed by the EU in February 2003 and is used to restrict the use of six toxic materials in the production process. Mercury is one of the harmful substances listed, and Fujitsu now successfully employs mercury-free backlight LED technology for better power-saving screen brightness, as well as adopting the usage of halogen-free retardants. The company now utilizes micro fuel cells, resource-saving technologies, environmental clean-up technology (such as the photocatalyst titanium apatite), and bio-based plastics. Fujitsu also procures products from suppliers that execute environmental assessment of products, including control of specific risky materials, and from those who have an environmental management system (e.g., ISO14001).

The second R is R&D. Most large companies are now financing green R&D on everything from greener laptops to environmentally friendly batteries. For instance, laptop screens using organic light emitting diode (OLED) technology (developed by Kodak and Sanyo) are more energy efficient and save power power-saving and independent to fluorescent backlighting.

NEC is a good example of a company utilizing R&D for e-waste reductions. The company’s Environmental Management Vision 2010 states its commitment to reducing NEC’s overall net impact on CO2 emissions to zero in fiscal 2011. Its “Real IT Cool Project” is a series of activities and programs for developing technology, products, and services aimed at reducing the power consumption of customer IT platforms and sharply reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from IT devices. Furthermore, NEC’s 2008 fiscal practices, objectives and results are based on the Global Reporting Initiative’s G3 Sustainability Reporting Guidelines. The International Institute for Human, Organization and the Earth, a Japanese non-profit organization, has provided an independent review of NEC’s activities and results, identifying areas of excellence and areas requiring greater effort. All these achievements are beneficial to society as well as the reputation of the corporation.

To conclude, e-waste is an urgent problem that we need to solve with the help of government, IT companies and the consumers of electronic products. Regulation alone may not be the most effective way to solve the problem (as the EU case seems to demonstrate). Fujitsu and NEC are providing solutions that make good environmental and social sense, but are also financially beneficial; surely the core of good CSR. ■

No comments: