As developing nations such as India and China continue down the road to prosperity, it’s not surprising that their citizens have been eager to spend their newfound wealth on material possessions. Makers of consumer goods are increasingly turning their attention to the developing world as a potentially huge market. All that consumption will ultimately lead to something else, however - a glut of worn-out, obsolete electronic products, chock-full of toxic substances. In fact, according to a new report from the American Chemical Society, by 2030 the e-waste generated by developing nations will be double that of the developed world.

The authors of the report, "Forecasting Global Generation of Obsolete Personal Computers," used a computer model to extrapolate current trends. They predict that in 20 years, developing nations will be discarding 400-700 million personal computers annually. Developed nations, by contrast, will be throwing out 200-300 million a year. This increase in e-waste will be due not only to increased computer ownership, but also to technological advances causing computers to become obsolete faster.

The Problem

Electronic waste is already a serious environmental problem, as discarded PC’s contain nasty substances such as lead, cadmium, beryllium and mercury. Some developing nations are notorious for their lax handling of such waste, much of which is currently being shipped to them from developed nations, for recycling. According to the report, the plastic coating on copper wire is burned off in open fire pits, while local waterways are polluted with acids and cyanide used to extract metals from circuit boards.

Possible Solutions

The authors address the idea of a ban on the shipping of e-waste, which is already the case (both applying to imports and exports) in many countries. As local ownership of electronic goods increases in developing nations, however, there will still be a problem that needs to be addressed. To that end, the report advocates a crackdown on “informal” recyclers that don’t take adequate environmental precautions.

Another suggestion is an economic incentive for proper recycling, wherein e-waste dismantlers would make more money by taking parts to official recycling centers, than by trying to do it themselves.

Whatever approach is taken, the report proposes that costs could be offset by recycling deposits. These would be paid by the consumer at the point of purchase, and tracked throughout the device’s lifetime by a radio frequency identification device.

The ACS report presents a picture strikingly similar to one recently presented by the United Nations.