Waste management

ILO’s first ever meeting on e-waste adopts Points of Consensus to promote decent work in the sector

Rapid technological advances and a rising demand for electronics has been accompanied by a flood of e-waste. It is a toxic stream of waste that poses a threat to human health, decent work and the environment. E-waste can also be seen as a resource in the emerging circular electronic economy with a large untapped potential. Better management of e-waste is crucial for advancing decent work and shaping a brighter future for all.

News | 11 April 2019
GENEVA (ILO News) - Representatives from governments, employers’ and workers’ organizations, as well as intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations, met in Geneva between 9 and 11 April for the Global Dialogue Forum on Decent Work in the Management of Electrical and Electronic Waste (E-waste). The Forum adopted points of consensus on advancing decent work and protecting the environment.

“Faced with what some have called a “tsunami of e-waste”, we cannot afford to be complacent”, said Mr Nikhil Seth, Executive Director of the United Nations Institute for Training and Research and Chair of the Global Dialogue Forum. “We must urgently assist the Member States of the ILO and the United Nations in designing and strengthening the systems, policies, incentives and capacities required to manage e-waste in ways that advance decent work, promote the health of those handling e-waste and protect the planet”.

Population growth, urbanization, and a rising middle class have led to e-waste becoming the fastest growing stream of waste in the world and there is no sign that the growth of e-waste will slow down. This stream of waste is highly complex, toxic and hazardous and negatively affects workers and the environment. Only 20 per cent of e-waste is formally recycled.

“Workers handling e-waste have no voice, no bargaining power and they are breaking hazardous materials by their hands”, said the worker vice-chairperson, Mr James Towers. “Moreover, these workers are unaware of the many risks associated with handling e-waste”.

Most of the work to manage e-waste in developing countries takes place in the informal economy in poor conditions, with limited opportunities for enterprises to grow and for workers to organize and improve their livelihoods, and the work is sometimes carried out by children.

There is business in e-waste. The material value alone of e-waste is worth €55 billion. It is becoming an increasingly important resource for many cooperatives and micro, small and medium sized enterprises that recover, re-use, and recycle waste products in the rapidly growing circular economy.

“There is great business opportunity in the e-waste sector”, said the employers’ vice-chairperson, Mr Patrick Van den Bossche, “We need to step up our efforts in creating decent and sustainable jobs, fostering an enabling environment for sustainable enterprises, offering new products and new services, and adding value through enhancing the circular economy”.

With the right systems, policies and processes in place to manage e-waste in ways that advance decent work and protect the environment, used electrical and electronic equipment have potential to fuel the generation of sustainable enterprises and the creation of green jobs. This would be a significant step towards shaping a future that works for all in the circular economy.

“In my own country – Nigeria, and in several other African countries, e-waste is littering our landscape”, said the government vice-chairperson, Mr Aniefiok Etim Essah “But our youth possesses the creativity and potential for learning skills to manage e-waste, giving us the opportunity to increase youth employment”.

The Global Dialogue Forum adopted its Points of Consensus on the ILO’s 100th anniversary. “This Forum is – I dare say – of historical importance for the ILO”, said the director of the ILO’s Sectoral Policies Department, Ms Alette van Leur, “I can think of no better way to celebrate our centenary than having governments, employers and workers come together to adopt far reaching consensus on a topic that will only grow in importance in the digital era – that of managing e-waste in ways that advance decent work for all.”