BROOKLIN, United States — A global public-private partnership was launched this week to reduce the toxic mountains of electronic waste and recycle increasingly valuable metals and components, Stephen Leahy reports for IPS News.

Much of the nearly 40 million tons of e-waste -- discarded electronics and electrical appliances -- produced globally each year ends up in China, India and other developing countries.

Backyard recyclers in the developing world attempt to recover the gold or silver under hazardous conditions, says Ruediger Kuehr of the United Nations University, which will host the initiative called Solving the E-Waste Problem (StEP) in Bonn, Germany.

"E-waste is often incinerated, not only wasting needed resources but adding toxic chemicals to the environment, both local and global," Kuehr told IPS.

There is also a growing realisation of the importance of reuse and recycling in a world rapidly using up its natural resources.

"There's more than gold in those mountains of high-tech scrap," he said.

Indium, a key element used in more than one billion products per year, including flat-screen monitors and mobile phones, has experienced a sixfold increase in price in the past five years. Indium is a byproduct of zinc mining, so it is not a matter of going someplace to get more, says Kuehr.

Reuse of elements like indium is crucial because "we're going to run out quite soon," he said, but also because "we don't know what environmental problems these are causing when they are improperly disposed of."

The goals of StEP is to standardize e-waste recycling processes globally, extend the life of products and markets for their reuse, and harmonise world legislative and policy approaches on e-waste. Major high-tech manufacturers, including Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, Dell, Ericsson, Philips and Cisco Systems, along with U.N., governmental, civil society and academic institutions, and recycling/refurbishing companies have signed on as charter members.

"This is a global problem, so there is an urgent need to harmonise rules," says Kuehr.

Zeina Alhajj, a toxics expert with Greenpeace International, disagrees: "We already have the Basel Convention and other laws -- what is truly needed is enforcement."

The 1992 Basel Convention was specifically set up to prevent transfer of hazardous waste, including e-waste, from developed to less developed countries.

"Rich countries skirt the rules, mislabel waste as material for reuse or simply don't check waste shipments for compliance," Alhajj said in an interview from Amsterdam, Holland.

The United States is the biggest producer of e-waste -- discarding close to 50 million computers a year -- and is also the largest shipper by far of e-waste to developing countries, she said. The U.S. has refused to sign the Basel Convention.

"It's good that StEP brings stakeholders together to talk about the problem, but the situation is so dire that binding laws and enforcement on the ground is needed," Alhajj said.

The Seattle-based toxic trade watchdog Basel Action Network also criticised StEP for not denouncing the global dumping of electronic waste on developing countries.

"It is sadly telling that there is not one mention of the Basel Convention on the StEP website," said Jim Puckett, BAN's coordinator. Both BAN and Greenpeace are not participating in StEP. BAN says it hasn't been allowed to participate.

"The StEP programme now appears to be part of the global e-waste problem, rather than a solution," Puckett said in a statement.

"Governments must regulate and enforce," agrees Jaco Huisman, of Delft University in the Netherlands and head of the StEP task force on recycling.

"But the problem is so large and complex, there also many steps to be taken in between," Huisman said in an interview.

The European Environmental Agency calculates that the volume of e-waste is now rising roughly three times faster than other forms of municipal waste and will soon be able to fill a line of dump trucks stretching halfway around the world.

Informal or backyard recycling in the developing world leads to emissions of highly toxic dioxins, furans and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), caused by burning PVC plastic and wire insulation. Local soil and water is contaminated from chemicals such as brominated flame retardants (used in circuit boards and plastic computer cases, connectors and cables). Computer monitors and televisions contain lead, mercury, cadmium, zinc, chromium and other heavy metals.

One of the StEP objectives is to create a global guide to dismantling e-scrap and maximising the safe reuse of recovered substances. StEP will also launch a large-scale project to help China safely dismantle and dispose of its domestic e-scrap.

"It's very hard to compete with the informal recycling sector in China," says Huisman.

All of the e-waste is currently bought up by backyard recyclers, leaving little for a large-scale facility with proper environmental and high quality processing standards.

Although China has outlawed these small, unregulated operations, they continue -- and on a huge scale. Getting this fixed is of prime importance to China and the rest of the world, Huisman says.

In 2005, Chinese consumers bought 140 million television sets, and with its fast-growing economic power, China will soon overtake the U.S. as the world's largest generator of e-waste. At the same time, the large population and relative lack of natural resources makes it the ideal country for setting up very efficient, large scale e-waste recycling facilities, says Huisman.

"If done right, China might be the e-waste recycling solution for the world," he added.

This article was originally written for IPS News by Stephen Leahy and is reprinted with permission.