E-Waste Recycling in Latin America: Overview, Challenges and Potential
Heinz Boeni1, Uca Silva2, Daniel Ott1
1Empa, Swiss Federal Laboratories for Material Testing and Research
Lerchenfeldstr. 5, CH-9014 St.Gallen, Switzerland
2SUR, Corporación de Estudios Sociales y Educación;
JM Infante 85, Providencia, Santiago, Chile
Keywords: e-waste recycling, e-waste management, IT-waste, Latin America
Latin America is facing a rapid increase in internet use along with fast growing computer sales.
Penetration with electronic equipment is in some countries approaching the level of
industrialized countries. There is an evident need to resolve the management of “end-of-life”
computers and other electronic equipment. Several studies in Latin America assessed the
increasing e-waste quantities and confirmed the importance of a sustainable e-waste
management. This paper gives an overview on the status on e-waste management in Latin
America, explains the challenges for establishing an e-waste management system in a developing
country setting and highlights the social and economic potential and the possibilities of a
Global ICT-trade and generation of e-waste from ICT
The global production of electronic devices and particularly of Information and Communication
Technologies (ICT) faces the biggest industrial expansion of the history: OECD figures show
that global trade of ICT technologies has reached 7.7% of the gross world product by 2004, the
major proportion accruing from China . In 2006 an estimated 230 million computers and 1
billion cell phones have been sold worldwide which corresponds to a volume of 5’848’000 t .
As a consequence, Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE), or e-waste, is by
far the fastest growing waste component. It reaches more than 5% referred to municipal solid
waste and e-waste generation in developing countries according to UNEP is expected to triple by
According to the OECD e-waste is “any appliance using an electric power supply that has
reached its end-of-life” . The European WEEE directive  distinguishes 10 categories of e-
waste: Big Household Appliances, Small Household Appliances, IT and Telecommunications
Equipment, Consumer Equipment, Lighting Equipment, Electrical and Electronic Tools, Toys,
Leisure and Sports Equipment, Medical Devices, Monitoring and Control Instruments, and
Automatic Dispensers. In this paper e-waste and WEEE are used as synonyms. Focus will be laid
on e-waste from IT-equipment (IT-waste), corresponding to category 3 of the European WEEE-
1 Corresponding author. Tel.: +41 71 274 78 58; Fax: +41 71 274 78 62.
E-mail addresses: firstname.lastname@example.org (H. Boeni), email@example.com (U. Silva), firstname.lastname@example.org (D. Ott).
E-waste marks an emerging environmental problem as well as a business opportunity, given the
content of both toxic (about 2% of total weight) and valuable materials . While the toxic
substances are of low risk during the use phase of the equipment, they can become extremely
harmful in the end-of-life phase. Lead in Cathode Ray Tubes (CRT), cadmium and brominated
flame retardants in plastics and mercury in flat screen backlights are just a few of the many
examples of toxic substances which potentially endanger the health of people and the
environment if not dealt with properly. It has been documented in several studies that the
dismantling of electrical and electronic equipment in developing countries is done mainly by the
poor – without any occupational health and safety measures . As a trigger for these unsuitable
practices serve rising metal prices particularly for copper, nickel, gold, silver, iron and
aluminium. These extracted metals can be sold locally and will be exported to the world markets.
The share of precious metals contained in e-waste is substantial: It is estimated that in the 230
million computers and the 1 billion cell phones sold in 2006 the quantities of gold and silver
reach approximately 70 t respectively 535 t, which correspond to about 3% each of the world
mine production for both metals. For palladium these figures even reach 18 t or 12% . One of
the main obstacles to efficiently and effectively recover these resources is the almost nonexistent
infrastructure for collection and recycling as well as the missing assignment of clear
E-Waste Generation in Latin America
Latin America is characterized by a high urbanization rate reaching 75% compared to Asia and
Africa with 40% respectively 38%, and a world average of 50% . In line with the urbanization
goes a high penetration rate with IT-equipment and a high level of internet use. The latter is
estimated to reach 24% in Latin America, but only 14% in Asia and 5% in Africa, whereas the
world average reaches an estimated 21% .
Even though IT use in Latin America still lags behind their northern neighbours, the region has
experienced an almost 600% increase in internet use from 2000 to 2007 . A similar trend can
be observed in most Latin American countries in the sales of IT-equipment for the past few years
and in particularly for 2007. The digital markets in Latin America have been growing on average
14% between 2003 and 2005, more than twice the rates from Europe and United States (5%) and
Asia-Pacific (6%) . Figure 1 provides an overview of the development of penetration rates
for PCs between 2001 and 2006 in selected countries of Latin America .
The rapid growth of sales of IT-equipment is resulting in increasing quantities of e-waste.
Several country studies in Latin America confirm this appraisal by predicting fast increasing e-
An e-waste study for Colombia (population 45 Mio) revealed around 6’000 - 9’000 t of
computer waste for 2007, a quantity that is estimated to double within the next five years
. This figure is in the same range as estimations of 7’300 t/a made for Peru
(population 29 Mio) . Corporate IT-waste produced by the public and private sector
is assessed to be around 50-55% in both countries.
A detailed assessment for Chile estimated 7’000 t for 2007 (population 16 Mio.) with a
rate of corporate IT-waste of 65% .
During 2007 in Argentina over 20’000 t of IT-waste have been generated according to a
recent study (population 39 Mio) .
A similar report from Mexico estimated 28’000 t of IT-waste for 2006 (population 103
In spite of the lack of comprehensive figures and a standardized methodology to assess e-waste
generation it has to be concluded that Latin America will have to address in the near future the
question of disposal of rapidly increasing numbers of end-of-life computers and other IT-
equipment. As already stated by Ripley , e-waste is reaching critical mass in Latin America.
Argentina Brasil Chile Colombia Mexico Venezuela
PC penetration rate in %
2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006
Figure 1: Development of the penetration rate of PCs between 2001 and 2006 in selected countries of Latin
Policy Principles and Global Framework
Extended Producer Responsibility
Extended Producer Responsibility or EPR is defined by Lindhqvist  as a “policy principle to
promote total life cycle environmental improvements of product systems by extending the
responsibilities of the manufacturers of the product to various parts of the entire life cycle of the
product, and especially to take-back, recycling and final disposal of the product.” The incentives
are twofold: to relieve municipalities of some financial burden of waste management, and to
provide incentives to producers to reduce resources, use more secondary materials, and
undertake design changes to reduce waste . EPR as a policy principle enjoys meanwhile a
wide acceptance by governments and industries. Initially it has been applied for packaging waste
and batteries, was later extended to WEEE and recently in the European Union to end-of-life
vehicles. As the coverage of EPR is more and more extended to various post consumer waste
streams, the range of approaches for implementing EPR is widening. The producer responsibility
can vary from fully private models to publicly required ones, sharing in different grades
operational and controlling aspects.
The manner in which EPR for WEEE is transposed into legislation and its subsequent
implementation differ from country to country, particularly in its scope (all WEEE or only some
categories), range and type (collective vs. individual responsibility) and funding mechanisms
(financial responsibility and its point of imposition) . EPR is not limited to industrial country
settings; also in a developing country context it can be transposed into national legislations and
be implemented in different ways. The challenges can be met considering that in developing
countries the share of historical products is still low and the share of non-branded products is
often overestimated. Formalization of part of the informal sector is a must, however low-risk
operations like collection can be left in part to the informal sector .
In recent years some EPR initiatives of mobile phone producers (for example Motorola and
Nokia) have been launched in developing countries. These voluntary take backs schemes
concentrate on either mobile phone battery or complete mobile phone take-back only. Computer
related initiatives cover printer and toner cartridge take-back actions (by Hewlett Packard and
Lexmark). Dell has extended his Consumer Free Recycling programme in 2006 to some
countries of Latin America. Collective or individual EPR programmes covering a certain WEEE
category regardless of brand and type of equipment have not evolved yet.
Basel Convention and StEP
The “Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and
their Disposal” adopted in 1989 is the international framework for hazardous waste, including e-
waste. The Ban Amendment to the Basel Convention from 1995 is prohibiting any export of
hazardous wastes from industrialized to developing countries. It has not yet entered into force
since it requires the signature of three quarters of the countries which signed the Basel
The 8th Conference of the Parties (COP) of the Basel Convention in Nairobi declared in 2006 e-
waste a priority issue and emphasized the need for creative and innovative solutions for the
environmentally sound management of e-waste .
Globally standardized recycling processes recovering valuable components in e-waste, extending
the life of products and markets for their reuse, and harmonizing world legislative and policy
approaches are the prime goals of a global public-private initiative called “Solving the E-Waste
Problem (StEP)”. This initiative was launched in March 2007 by various UN organisations
(UNU, UNEP and UNCTAD) together with industry, governments, donors and academic
Regional Agreements and National Legislations
The Mercosur Policy Agreement from 2006  mandates its member states Argentina,
Paraguay, Uruguay and Brazil to take national measures to ensure post consumer responsibility
by producers and importers. This policy agreement is a sub regional attempt to anchor the
concept of EPR as an environmental policy principle.
The Organization of American States (OAS) has declared in its Santo Domingo conference in
2006 the readiness to prevent and mitigate negative effects associated with the use of ICT along
the whole life cycle, particularly pertaining also to an inadequate recycling.
Costa Rica has stipulated EPR as a policy principle in its recently drafted decree on WEEE.
Producers are hold responsible for the proper management of e-waste from ICT. They have to
comply with goals set up by a public-private committee which will be formed for implementing
the decree. At present only WEEE categories 3 and 4 (ICT and Consumer Electronics) are
In 2005 Argentina initiated a national plan on integrated e-waste management and in 2006 a
project on a specific legislation on WEEE which is supposed to cover the 10 WEEE categories
according to the European Directive. In 2007 a third project was proposed to establish guiding
principles for companies working in e-waste management. However these proposals have not yet
got the political support needed in order to become effective.
In Brazil the situation is somehow contradicting between state and federal level. On state level
some EPR based waste framework laws have been issued. In Sao Paolo as well as on federal
level there seems to be strong opposition from producer’s side to include EPR for WEEE
management as a guiding principle .
In Peru in the course of the revision of the national waste legislation the explicit inclusion of the
EPR principle is under discussion whereas in Colombia the draft of a specific legal framework
for WEEE is on the political agenda.
Refurbishment and Recycling Infrastructure
Projects for computer refurbishment are basically the result of social initiatives aiming at
reducing the negative effects of the digital divide trough computer donations. The reference
model was the Canadian “Computer for schools” initiative. In this context various initiatives
evolved in Latin America which differ in their operational design and coverage. The most
successful programme is “Computadores para Educar” of the Colombian Ministry of Education
which has in 2007 reached 28’000 delivered computers to schools totalling almost 110’000 since
its start in 2001.
In most cases the refurbished computers are used to supply public education programmes under
the umbrella of the Ministry of Education of a particular country. A strong government support
of such programmes has demonstrated to be a crucial factor due to its financial support but also
in order to facilitate distribution in public education, to get access to the computers from public
institutions, corporate users and external donor agencies and to disseminate positive experiences
through public mass media.
E-waste recycling infrastructure
Formal recycling of e-waste in Latin America, mostly limited to a professional disassembly, is an
emerging recycling activity. In a number of countries like Chile, Argentina, Peru, Colombia and
Brazil traditional metal recycling companies have discovered the e-waste recycling market.
Processed quantities are still on a modest level, since neither the political framework, nor the
logistical infrastructure is allowing for larger quantities. Most of these companies do not offer a
full fledged service since they preferably concentrate on valuable components, like printed
wiring boards, disregarding an adequate disposal of components like Cathode Ray Tubes (CRT)
or other components which have a negative economic value but pose a potential environmental
or health risk.
In Chile formal recycling of IT-waste reaches only an estimated 1.5-3% of the quantities
generated , a figure which is likely to be similar or even lower in the other countries. Most of
the companies concentrate on service delivery to big national and international companies
following a business-to-business (B2B) approach, whereas the informal sector is trying to make
benefit of valuable e-waste components from private households.
The Basel Convention Regional Centre (BCRC) in Buenos Aires has started an initiative to
collect basic information trying to quantify the amount of e-waste generated in the different
countries of Latin America and the Caribbean. Consolidated figures are not yet available. In
April 2008 the BCRC supported in Colombia a pilot take-back campaign of IT-waste. Similar
pilot e-waste collections have been realized earlier in Costa Rica and are now planned for Lima.
The International Development Research Centre (IDRC) through its Institute for Connectivity in
the Americas (ICA) started in 2003 a programme on reuse of computers for schools in Latin
America and the Caribbean (LAC) in cooperation with SUR, an NGO in Chile. The programme
focuses on exploring challenges and opportunities created by shipping obsolete computers from
industrialized countries to Latin America. It looks into environmental and social aspects of such
ICT transfers, particularly of those dedicated for schools and other educational programmes.
IDRC concluded that the reuse and distribution of computers on a large scale requires end-of-life
solutions for the obsolete equipment and therefore needs to address recycling aspects too. In a
second phase which started in 2007 the programme is now addressing this issue through the
creation of a Regional Platform for the management of waste from computer in Latin America
and the Caribbean (www.rrrtic.net).
The Swiss Federal Laboratory for Material Testing and Research (EMPA) is implementing the
international e-waste programme “Knowledge Partnerships in e-waste Recycling”
(www.ewasteguide.info) financed by the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (seco) of the
Swiss Government. In close cooperation with relevant stakeholders from industry, government
and NGO the programme is supporting the establishment of sound e-waste management systems
in South Africa, India and China. After three years of implementation substantial improvements
in e-waste management can be claimed as a direct or indirect outcome of the program: In China
the programme supported the development of a national e-waste law and technical standards, and
will now accompany their translation into an operable e-waste system in the two cities Hangzhou
and Qingdao. In India the cooperation led to the foundation of a national e-waste strategy group
which currently develops a producer responsibility concept and to the establishment of first
"Clean e-waste Channels" in Bangalore and Delhi. In South Africa the cooperation resulted in
the creation of the e-waste Association South Africa out of which the South African IT
Association (ITA) launched an initiative to establish a Producer Responsible Organisation (PRO)
by the end of 2007; "Green e-waste Channels" started their operation in Cape Town,
Johannesburg and Durban. The programme of the Swiss Government is now being prepared for
extension to Latin America with Colombia and Peru as focus countries. It will be carried out in
close cooperation with the programme of IDRC/SUR.
Social and Economic Potential of e-waste management
Low risk processes, such as manual dismantling of e-waste offer good job opportunities for low
and medium skilled labour given proper training and access to the necessary and affordable
technologies . The SWICO system in Switzerland has created around 1’200 jobs in social
institutions by recycling around 45’000 t of e-waste from ICT annually. Refurbishment activities
have a high potential to generate low and semi-skilled jobs too. The project “Computadores para
Educar” in Colombia will create in its final stage around 390 low/semi-skilled and about 50
highly skilled jobs with the refurbishment of 46’000 computers annually .
Challenges for a sustainable E-Waste Management in Latin America
Policy and legislation
E-waste management is slowly been taken into the political agenda of some countries in Latin
America. However in most countries the present destinies of obsolete electrical and electronic
equipment as well as quantitative figures are unknown. Only Mexico, Costa Rica, Colombia,
Peru, Argentina and Chile have particular baseline studies available so far.
Specific e-waste legislation is in development in Costa-Rica. All other countries of Latin
America still lag behind in drafting a legal framework for e-waste management. While drafting
such legislation the roles of both government and industry need to be clarified. Traditional
models for solid waste management have assigned the tasks of collection and disposal of waste
to public authorities; however, an EPR model requires an adequate assignation and repartition of
responsibilities along the reverse supply chain. A participative process in designing the legal
framework is therefore a prerequisite of a successful later implementation.
Collection and recycling infrastructure
Waste collection and recycling infrastructure in developing countries is characterized by a high
level of informality. A certain level of informality will prevail even when a regulated e-waste
management system becomes operational. While formal recycling companies will enlarge their
activities and increase the processed quantities when a formal e-waste management system is put
into place, informal recyclers will continue to collect from individual households those
components with an economic value. A major challenge is therefore to guide the role of the
informal sector towards a future system. As a consequence e-waste management systems should
incentive individual and corporate consumers to dispose potentially harmful WEEE into formal
collection systems. In order to become effective, some sort of financial scheme which
compensates return of obsolete equipment will be needed.
EPR in a Latin American context
Latin America is characterized by a wide range of different economical levels which in turn
result in different social levels. Given the differences in framework conditions and present waste
practices EPR implementation can not be based on a single model approach which is universally
applied to either a waste stream or country. In order to get the ICT producers and trade industry
committed and to assign responsibilities, strong and responsive trade associations which
represent the largest producers, importers and retailers should be in place. In a future e-waste
management system such associations can assume the role of a PRO.
Experience has shown that starting an e-waste managements system based on EPR does not
imply having all producers and importers on board from the very beginning. A limited group of
the largest importers and producers allows to get a system off the ground, even before legislation
is put into force . In an initial stage resistance from a PRO towards the inclusion of non-
branded (“cloned”) and historical products might occur, however the share of such products
which could potentially benefit from a system without contributing to its financing is often
A major challenge now is the implementation of the EPR concept considering the high
percentage of cloned computers on the market, where a responsible producer is difficult to
The material value of the discharged electric and electronic equipment is the driving force in an
e-waste management system and at the same time represents the key to its financial basis.
Producer Responsibility Organisations can benefit from this added value while operating a
system. The question whether the intrinsic material value is sufficient to finance a system has
been debated widely. However it must be concluded that a full-fledged system which implies the
proper disposal of toxic components, an adequate drop-off and collection infrastructure and a
control mechanism will require additional financial resources .
Furthermore, e-waste management systems for obsolete IT-equipment have to consider the
possibility of combing refurbishment and recycling. Reuse of equipment which has not reached
its technical lifespan is a precept giving the limited access to information technologies in
developing countries. Future systems should therefore integrate refurbishing activities and build
on synergies with the respective actors.
In the course of designing a future solution of e-waste management in Latin America different
actors will become involved and will be assigned specific roles in that process. A continuous
dialogue from the very beginning between the governing bodies and the importers, producers and
retailers is a must. Even though further voluntary solutions by some producers will evolve, these
will only offer services for single products of a single brand. Such particular approaches will not
solve the challenge of growing e-waste streams. Solutions with comprehensive schemes and
public-private partnerships will be required. The combination of refurbishment and recycling
will offer an opportunity to link socially motivated educational initiatives addressing the bridging
of the digital divide with resource recovery and generation of economic activities. E-waste
management in developing countries is challenging, but will also provide opportunities for new
and innovative approaches.
The potential of regional solutions lies particularly in aligning policy frameworks and treatment
standards, in harmonising operational schemes and in controlling the transboundary movements
of new and second-hand components and particular e-waste streams. Quality standards for
donations directed to refurbishment programmes will be of particular importance. Formal
cooperation between corresponding actors should be initiated and regional activities should be
consolidated in a regional platform for WEEE management, synonymous to the WEEE forum
which has been established in Europe.
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