A team of academics has taken issue with a number of key statements on e-scrap exports and generation recently made by the United Nations Environment Programme.
In a post on a scholarly waste and pollution blog called Discard Studies, researchers Josh Lepawsky, Joshua Goldstein and Yvan Schulz make the case that a report released by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) this spring contains “serious shortcomings.”
The three researchers unpacked the citations and logic that led to a number of UNEP assertions on problems within the global system for handling end-of-life electronics, including the percentage of material illegally disposed each year. They write the report is flawed by “‘corner-cutting techniques’ that detach statements from their original sources and, in so doing, make those statements look more solid and trustworthy than they actually are.”
At present, all three authors teach at the university level and study e-scrap management. Lepawsky is on the faculty of the Department of Geography at Memorial University of Newfoundland in Canada. Goldstein teaches at the University of Southern California, and Schulz teaches at the University of Neuchâtel in Neuchâtel, Switzerland.
UNEP is a body within the United Nations system that works on environmental issues. The report from UNEP was released May 12 and garnered attention-grabbing headlines in a number of major media outlets.
The Discard Studies response takes issue with seven points by UNEP, most notably the claim that up to 90 percent of the world’s e-scrap ends up being illegally disposed of abroad. That statistic appeared in the very first sentence of the press release announcing the report, which was titled “Waste Crimes – Waste Risks” and looks at a variety of global waste streams.
The Discard Studies post notes the 90 percent e-scrap export statistic was based in part on numbers from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. That U.N. agency released a report in 2013 that stated between 60 and 90 percent of globally generated material was improperly handled.
“The UNEP press release forgoes the range in favor of the upper limit of 90 percent and it is this figure that is picked up in subsequent media reports … thus bolstering the dominant e-waste storyline about illegal trade and dumping,” the post charges.
The post also calls into question the U.N. report’s assertion that global e-scrap generation has reached 41.8 million metric tons, or about 46 million short tons, per year. And the academics challenge the U.N’s characterization of current electronics processing realities in Ghana and China.
Ruediger Kuehr, a researcher with United Nations University (UNU) who has worked on other e-scrap flow studies, noted the UNEP research was intended not to bring new numbers into the export conversation but to analyze waste crime. He also said the study’s figures on material generation were sound. “The 41.8 millions of e-waste generated in 2014 is based on a statistical methodology developed by UNU,” he said, “and endorsed by the members of the Partnership Measuring ICT for Development.” That partnership is a U.N.-associated project that monitors data on information and communications technology (ICT).
Kuehr, who did not contribute to the UNEP report, said the study was one of several different projects from U.N. groups currently investigating the e-scrap issue.
“The report, the resulting misinterpretation of some findings and the following responses highlight the urgent need to further research many aspects of the e-waste challenge in an international harmonized, science-based and … objective approach,” he said. “In this sense, the UNEP report is already contributing to further insights into the criminal aspects of international e-waste shipments, which definitely require further work. But this work must be based on much better data, really looking into the exports and imports in many harbors around the globe.”