Addressing E-Waste at Rio+20

By Walker Smith

On Tuesday I participated in a webcast from the U.S. Center at Rio+20 about an internet challenge to come up with creative solutions to the global problem of e-Waste. EPA, along with the State Department, OpenIdeo and the Brazilian bank Itau Unibanco, announced an e-Waste Challenge to generate ideas for solutions to a variety of e-waste issues. We’re anticipating that this effort will initially reach 30,000 people, and eventually many, many more as social networks take this up and communities get more creative. Whether the challenge results in brand-new, innovative solutions, or helps apply our knowledge and experience in new and different ways, we’re sure it will help us tackle these issues in both developing and developed countries.

As I stated in the announcement webcast, we are using more and more electronic devices, and don’t have adequate solutions about what to do when them when they wear out. In 2009, over 438 million new consumer electronics were sold in the U.S. alone. The United Nations Environmental Program, UNEP, estimates that between 20 and 50 million metric tons of e-waste are generated each year and too much of this e-waste ends up in developing countries that don’t have the capacity to manage the e-waste safely.

E-waste is a priority issue for EPA. We want to reduce the flows of e-waste and build capacity for the e-waste that does reach developing countries. Our efforts have included helping to create the National Strategy for Electronics Stewardship which was issued by the U.S. government last year, a joint effort by a number of federal agencies.

We are working domestically to increase recycling, working with the businesses and community groups. On the global front, we are partnering with international organizations, including the United Nations University Solving the E-waste Problem (StEP) and the Basel Workgroup, the Partnership for Action on Computing Equipment (PACE), a public/private partnership promoting environmentally sound management, developing technical guidance and implementing pilot programs in developing countries. Some of our joint efforts include characterizing the U.S. exports of used electronics in order to help paint a picture of the global flows of these materials; working to assist foreign governments and other stakeholders with capacity building; and working bilaterally with Ethiopia and China to build capacity.

The e-waste problem, however, is a growing one as people around the world rely more on more on electronic devices. The e-waste challenge is designed to harness the imagination and creativity of the virtual community to come up with more solutions to reduce and manage e-waste.

We hope that you will join e-waste challenge and help contribute to solving the problem of e-waste. Visit the website and add your inspiration. Keep checking back to comment and build on others’ ideas. You can also share the challenge on Facebook and join the discussion using #OI_eWaste on Twitter to help build the buzz. If today’s event is any indication, we’ll have more than enough enthusiasm and input to bring exciting new ideas to this critical global sustainability challenge.

About the Author: Walker Smith, is the Director of the Office of Global Affairs and Policy in the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of International and Tribal Affairs.