Commentary: The global growth of e-waste is not letting up

BONN, Germany: Each year, the total amount of electric and electronic equipment the world uses grows by 2.5 million tonnes.

Phones, radios, toys, laptops – if it has a power or battery supply its likely to join a growing mountain of “e-waste” after use.

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In 2019 alone, the world generated 53.6 million tonnes of e-waste. Thats about 7.3 kilograms per person and equivalent in weight to 350 cruise ships.

Asia produced the lions share – 24.9 million tonnes – followed by the Americas (13.1 million tonnes) and Europe (12 million tonnes), while Africa and Oceania generated 2.9 and 0.7 million tonnes respectively.

By 2030, the global total is likely to swell to 74.7 million tonnes, almost a doubling of the annual amount of new e-waste in just 16 years.

This makes it the worlds fastest growing domestic waste stream, fuelled mainly by more people buying electronic products with shorter life cycles and fewer options for repair.

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These products can help improve living standards, and its good that more and more people can afford them. But growing global demand is outpacing our capacity to recycle or dispose of electronic products safely.

Once theyre obsolete and discarded, these products can end up accumulating in the environment, polluting habitats and harming people and wildlife.

E-WASTE RECYCLING

Only 17.4 per cent of 2019s e-waste was formally collected and recycled.

Since 2014, the amount of recycled e-waste has only grown by 1.8 million tonnes each year. The total amount of e-waste generated increased by 9.2 million tonnes over the same period.

At the same time, the amount of undocumented e-waste is increasing.

Men recycle electronic waste from computers at a workshop in New Delhi, India, Jul 29, 2020. (Photo: REUTERS/Adnan Abidi)

In new research, we found that Europe has the highest collection and recycling rate, covering about 42.5 per cent of the total e-waste generated in 2019. Asia ranked second at 11.7 per cent, the Americas and Oceania were similar at 9.4 per cent and 8.8 per cent, and Africa had the lowest rate at 0.9 per cent.

What happened with the rest (82.6 per cent) of the worlds e-waste generated in 2019 isnt clear.

In high income countries, around 8 per cent of e-waste is thought to be discarded in waste bins, while 7 per cent to 20 per cent is exported. In lower income countries, the picture is less clear, as e-waste is mostly managed informally.

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IMPACT ON HEALTH AND ENVIRONMENT

Without a reliable system of waste management, toxic substances contained in e-waste, such as mercury, brominated flame retardants, chlorofluorocarbons and hydrochlorofluorocarbons, are more likely to be released into the environment and harm the people who live, work and play in e-waste scrapyards.

Mercury is used in computer monitors and fluorescent lighting, but exposure to it can cause brain damage. We estimated that about 50 tonnes of mercury is contained in these undocumented flows of e-waste that end up in the environment each year.

E-waste doesnt just pose a health risk though. It also contributes directly to global warming.

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Dumped temperature-exchange equipment, found in fridges and air conditioners, can slowly release greenhouse gases. About 98 million tonnes are thought to leak from scrapyards each year, equivalent to 0.3 per cent of global emissions from the energy sector.

Aside from toxins, e-waste also contains precious metals and useful raw materials, such as gold, silver, copper and platinum. The total value of all this discarded as e-waste in 2019 has been conservatively valued at US$57 billion – a sum greater than the GDP of most countries.

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