Improving information flow on chemicals in electronic products and E-waste to minimize negative consequences for health and the environment

21 Oct.,2022


Electronic chemicals

The Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM) is an international framework with the objective of achieving “sound management of chemicals throughout their life cycle so that, by 2020, chemicals are used and produced in ways that lead to the minimization of significant adverse effects on human health and the environment” (UNEP, 2006, p. 14). A specific SAICM goal is to ensure that “information on chemicals throughout their life cycle, including, where appropriate, chemicals in products, is available, accessible, user friendly, adequate and appropriate to the needs of all stakeholders” (UNEP, 2006, p. 16). To further this specific SAICM goal, the 2009 International Conference on Chemicals Management initiated a project called Chemicals in Products (CiP). The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) led and facilitated the CiP project, which included case studies on electronics, toys, textiles, and building products. The project was completed in 2011, and the findings informed UNEP recommendations for a global approach to chemicals management.

The CiP electronics case study focused on mobile phones and personal computers (PCs) because of their recent rapid increase in use, high turnover rates among consumers, prevalence in both industrialized and developing countries, and consequent significance from a waste and recycling perspective. The main objectives of the electronics case study were to:

Determine the extent to which existing information systems meet the needs of different stakeholder groups for managing or minimizing potential risks of chemicals in electronics;

Highlight information gaps; and

Identify obstacles and potential solutions to optimize the flow of information in the product chain.

The International Chemical Secretariat (ChemSec) led the electronics case study project, and members of the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies (IGES) and DanWatch also contributed to the project. The Nordic Council of Ministers provided funding for the case study.

This paper summarizes findings from the CiP project’s electronics1 case study, which were reported in extensive detail in 2011 (see Nimpuno and Scruggs, 2011). From this starting point, we assess global progress toward achieving the SAICM goal of ensuring that information on chemicals in electronics is “available, accessible, user friendly, adequate and appropriate to the needs of all stakeholders” using additional recent insights from the academic literature, published reports, and business initiatives. Finally, we use this body of information to offer recommendations for improving the flow of chemical-related information in the electronics product chain and the sustainability of e-waste2 recycling and management. We focus mainly on the flow of chemicals-related information in the electronics product chain and how information systems can be improved to better protect human health and the environment. In cases where better information alone would not likely improve health or environmental outcomes, such as in the informal3 e-waste sector, we discuss additional steps to improve the situation. While we include discussion of all types of stakeholders in the electronics product chain, those in the recycling and waste handling stages in developing countries were a key concern due to the general severity of environmental and health problems associated with their activities.

A number of related background reports were foundational to the CiP project. The following three were particularly important to the electronics case study and provided a starting point for the project: (1) Toxic Substances in Articles: The Need for Information (Massey et al., 2008), (2) Survey of SAICM Focal Points on the Need for Information on Chemicals in Products (Becker et al., 2009), and (3) Chemicals in Products: An Overview of Existing Systems for Providing Information Regarding Chemicals in Products and of Stakeholders’ Needs for Such Information (Kogg and Thidell, 2010).

Several business terms are used throughout this paper to help describe how electronics are made and how information related to chemicals flows through the chain of actors involved. These terms are defined here, based primarily on the work of Kogg and Thidell (2010):

The product life cycle encompasses all aspects of a product’s life, including product research and design; extraction of raw materials and/or production of chemicals, substances, and materials; product production; marketing; product use; recycling; and disposal.

The product chain is composed of the stakeholders at each step of the product life cycle.

Stakeholders include anyone with an interest in the chemicals in electronic products. For instance, stakeholders might be individuals (e.g., consumers, employees, workers), private enterprises, nongovernmental organizations (e.g., those concerned with consumer safety, worker protection, environment, or trade), governmental agencies (e.g., those related to chemical safety, environmental protection, health, or trade), and public sector organizations (e.g., health and emergency response services).

The supply chain is the series of actors that create the individual chemicals, materials, and components that eventually comprise a final product.

CiP information systems are formalized systems of information that can be used to transfer chemicals-related information to stakeholders in the product chain. Such systems may include information regarding: the identity of chemicals in products (possibly with guidelines for interpretation of that information), health or environmental effects related to chemical content, and chemicals that are barred from use in products (i.e., as with ecolabels and companies’ restricted substance lists).

The terms downstream and upstream describe actors’ positions relative to one another in a product’s life cycle (though retailers and consumers are not usually included in the scope of these terms). Typical examples of actors at the upstream end include chemical and material producers and examples at the downstream end include brand owners and recyclers. However, the term can also be used in a relative way; for example, materials producers may refer to chemical producers as being “upstream” of them even though they themselves are typically considered to be upstream actors.