An end to electronic waste

21 Mar 2018 13:30h - 15:00h

Event report

[Read more session reports from the WSIS Forum 2018]

This high-level dialogue addressed the challenge of e-waste management, requiring UN system-wide collaboration, and involved the signing of a Letter of Intent by representatives of seven UN agencies.

In his opening statement, Mr Houlin Zhao, secretary-general of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), explained that despite its opportunities, digitalisation is creating a rapidly growing amount of e-waste, the improper treatment of which poses significant risks to health and the environment. A number of UN agencies have started working on managing e-waste, and the joint Letter of Intent demonstrates their continued commitment to the remaining work.

After the signing of the Letter of Intent, moderator Mr James Pennington, project specialist, Circular Economy, World Economic Forum (WEF), provided further details on the scope of the problem of e-waste, of which only 20% is formally recycled, and which already causes harm to communities and the environment. He then invited the panellists to share their current work and future plans in the area of e-waste.

Mr Brahima Sanou, from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), stressed the importance of data and measurement: ‘If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it’. In this context, he referred to the ITU’s Global E-Waste Monitor 2017, which was published in cooperation with the UN University and the International Solid Waste Association.

Mr Nikhil Seth, executive director of the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR), highlighted the importance of changing people’s attitudes and behaviour. UNITAR hopes to reach communities, businesses, and decision-makers to show how things can be done differently, by creating training programmes and modules. The partnership will be important in providing the right content for such programmes.

Mr Rolph Payet, executive secretary, Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions, explained that the Basel convention has already put in place several guidelines and partnerships. Yet, with the advent of the Internet of Things, anything can be turned into an electronic device, which could lead to the proliferation of e-waste. Despite the many risks, e-waste can be seen as an opportunity for recycling and the circular economy, and the coalition needs to examine how to turn these threats into opportunities.

Mr Hiroshi Kuniyoshi, managing director and deputy to the director-general of the Directorate of External Relations and Policy Research of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), talked about UNIDO’s work in promoting sustainable e-waste management in developing countries and countries in transition, taking into account the entire ‘life cycle’ of electrical equipment. This includes programmes implemented at the national level, cooperation with the private sector, the promotion of e-waste policies, capacity development, and upscaling of recycling facilities.

Mr Elliott Harris, assistant secretary-general of UN Environment, shared his agency’s work in publishing guidance documents and assisting policy-makers in developing e-waste strategies. Yet, while previous work had mainly focused on recycling, the focus has now broadened to include the minimisation of e-waste production at the design stage to remove the overall impact of the electronics industry on the environment.

Ms Alette van Leur, director of the Sectoral Policies Department at the International Labour Organization (ILO), stressed the importance of an inter-agency approach to this multidimensional challenge. She explained that e-waste management could offer opportunities for job creation, green jobs, and the protection of workers, and stressed the need to formalise the sector. The ILO will organise a meeting on the promotion of decent work in the management of e-waste in 2019.

Ms Maria Mendiluce, managing director of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), spoke about the importance of developing a common language between businesses and the UN system. More and more companies see the e-waste agenda as an economic matter as e-waste is rich in precious metals.

In the second round of questions, Pennington asked the organisations about their roles and potential areas of cooperation. Sanou pointed out that the ITU sets standards and can serve as a platform for collaboration with industry. Seth highlighted the need for policy-makers to better understand the inter-relationships between e-waste and other sustainable development goals, such as sustainable cities and clean water. He also said they need to have a deeper understanding of costs that they are not factoring in. Payet spoke about the threats of the transborder movement of e-waste, and the need for harmonisation of the e-waste management system.

Kuniyoshi stressed the need for a regional approach, and mentioned a UNIDO workshop that is taking place in Ecuador to strengthen regional cooperation on the sound management of e-waste, with 13 Latin American countries. Harris explained that there are already many initiatives in the UN system to tackle e-waste. Yet, most of them focus on waste treatment in Africa and Asia, while few initiatives focus on product design and consumption, which is a more prominent challenge in other parts of the world. He announced the creation of an e-waste knowledge platform to exchange information across the UN to discover gaps and share best practices. Van Leur questioned why the digital economy is not bound by proper regulation if it is such a central part of society, and stressed the importance of formalising the industry. Mendiluce added that waste should not be conceptualised as a cost, but as a source of revenue, and that there is a need for greater awareness of the opportunities from e-waste among businesses.

Pennington closed the session by asking the panellists how their organisations will push forward the Letter of Intent. According to Sanou, the partnership should not reinvent the wheel, but rather coordinate activities. Seth explained that UNITAR will work on identifying capacity building needs and work with the partnership to get the right content to be translated into training. Payet spoke about the utility of the Basel Convention to frame e-waste as an opportunity for the creation of jobs and the extraction of resources. Similarly, Kuniyoshi focused on the importance of changing the e-waste challenge into a business opportunity for more sustainable production. Harris highlighted the convening power of the UN and suggested that it could be a facilitator to bring stakeholders together. Van Leur reiterated the interplay between e-waste and decent work, and explained that the ILO will conduct research on this topic in a number of countries. Mendiluce talked about WBCSD’s efforts to work with companies to translate the e-waste problem into business language. Finally, Pennington explained that the WEF will continue to be a facilitator for multistakeholder discussions. As the key takeaways, Pennington stressed the need for genuine and deep multistakeholder collaboration, the need for the UN to have a common voice on this topic, and the importance of awareness at both the leadership and consumer level.


By Barbara Rosen Jacobson