E-waste in Latin America: The dark side of ICTs?

In the beginning

Information and communications technologies (ICTs) can play a positive role in the achievement of development goals and the improvement of living conditions for people and communities. While the benefits of the expansion of ICT use and implementation are many, there are also negative impacts, such as those associated with the growth in the volume of so-called electronic waste, or e-waste. This leads to the need for effective e-waste management, particularly to counteract the potential dangers in terms of environmental contamination and public health risks.

Until fairly recently, e-waste was a relatively unknown subject in the region, and largely ignored by the various stakeholders. Unlike other areas related to ICTs for development, there was a very clear starting point for the work and research agenda around e-waste in Latin America. This dates back to 2004, when the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) supported the design and implementation of the Applied Research Project on Computer Recycling in Latin America and the Caribbean, led by the Chilean organisation SUR Corporación de Estudios Sociales y Educación. Uca Silva, the lead researcher with the Regional Platform on Electronic Waste in Latin America and the Caribbean (RELAC Platform) and an expert on ICTs, e-waste and computer recycling, notes that when the project kicked off, it set in motion “an unprecedented process in terms of the complete lack of information, reflection, associations, networks, experts, research and projects in the region. We found ourselves faced with a fairly clean slate, you could say, in which actions could be taken on numerous different fronts.”

While this has not been the only initiative in the region, it set a significant precedent by addressing multiple dimensions of the e-waste issue: conceptual, methodological, technical, economic and political. There was a need for the generation of knowledge and diagnostic assessment around the subject, as a basis for developing guidelines for the practical management of technological waste as well as the necessary public policies. As a result, the first generation of e-waste projects focused on the production of knowledge on the issue, the systemisation of information, and the analysis of the life cycle of technological waste. While emphasis was placed on computers in the earliest stages, other types of electronic equipment and devices were included as time passed.

A key contributing factor was the creation and promotion of a network of experts who drove forward the production of knowledge and the training of actors from the public sector in order to work towards the development of regulations.

Building a regional agenda

E-waste was initially addressed as a problem limited to the impacts of the movement of equipment and devices from countries in the global North to the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean. A relatively short time later, work began on a broader agenda of issues that included the generation of knowledge on waste flows (the amount of e-waste produced at national levels), the analysis and proposal of integrated e-waste management systems (encompassing the entire chain from production to recycling), and the development of standards and regulations, as well as conceptual and practical work on recycling. The systematic production of knowledge and information was accompanied by the creation of public-private partnerships, which, through a regional multi-stakeholder political dialogue, eventually gave rise to guidelines for public policies on the subject. The most concrete outcome of this dialogue was the development of the Guidelines for the Management of Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) in Latin America, aimed at supporting the development of harmonised regional strategies for e waste management. These guidelines include a recommendation to incorporate the principle of extended producer responsibility in national policies and regulations, as well as explaining a series of key concepts for understanding the issue.

In some countries of the region, such as Brazil, Mexico and Peru, government institutions have been quick to respond to the challenges posed by rapid technological advances that render equipment obsolete in a short period of time and the prior lack of attention to this subject in the region. According to Silva, “there are now four countries with rules on electronic waste. Costa Rica has specific rules for electronic waste within a general law; Colombia has reached an agreement for regulations on the treatment of e-waste (specifically computers) and is now working on a general law; Peru has given a cause for celebration this year by developing regulations for electrical and electronic waste that are very interesting and wide-reaching; and Brazil has established rules and standards for e-waste.” Nevertheless, there is continued reticence in countries such as Chile and Argentina, where no significant progress has been made on proposed public policies and regulation.

Some of the new lines of work being pursued in the region are the development of standards (for e-waste treatment, management, etc.), certification schemes, transboundary movement of e-waste, and communication and information management systems, among others.

Future prospects

There continues to be various and complex challenges when it comes to standardising procedures for the collection and management of e-waste, prolonging the useful life of equipment, regulating markets for recycling and reuse, and developing policies and regulations that address the problem in a comprehensive and integrated manner. It is important to systematise the experience accumulated up until now, particularly for the establishment of regional guidelines for implementation at the national level, adapted to the contexts of each individual country.

Progress is still needed in regional coordination among different stakeholders and initiatives, as well as the development of conceptual frameworks to tackle the problem of e-waste not only from a technological perspective, but also from an environmental point of view. This dual approach should not be merely conceptual; it should guide concrete practices in the management of e-waste, in order to transform the 'dark side' of ICT use into an opportunity for sustainable development. In addition, Silva stresses, “a lot of work needs to be done with the producers. They are very resistant and as long as there are no laws in place, they are unlikely to comply.”

The publication Residuos electrónicos: un desafío para la sociedad del conocimiento en América Latina y el Caribe (Electronic Waste: A challenge for the knowledge society in Latin America and the Caribbean) offers a detailed overview of the challenges faced by the region with regard to e-waste, and is considered a mandatory reference work.

About the author: 

Valeria Betancourt

Valeria is the coordinator of the Communications and Information Policy Program for Latin America (CIPP-LA) of the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) and a consultant for the project 25 years of the Information Society in Latin America & the Caribbean.