The United Nations is sounding the alarm on increasing levels of e-waste, with 2019 producing a record 53.6 million tonnes of the stuff: an increase of 21 per cent in just the past five years.
A report from the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), called Global E-waste Monitor 2020, attributed the jump to higher levels of disposable incomes, growing urbanisation and mobility, and further industrialisation in some parts of the world.
The 2019 figures represents 7.3kg of e-waste for every person on the planet and the problem is only swelling thanks to growing consumption of electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) as well as shorter life cycles and increasing difficulty in repairing electronic goods: both issues driven by companies seeking to increase profits and sales.
There is some refurbishment and refuse of electronic goods – mostly from high to low-income countries – but the report notes that a "considerable amount of e-waste is still exported illegally or under the guise of being for reuse or pretending to be scrap metal". It estimates that between 7 and 20 per cent of all e-waste is dumped illegally.
Perhaps more concerning is that the report's authors were unhappy to track what had happened to the vast majority of the e-waste produced: "The fate of 82.6 per cent (44.3 Mt) of e-waste generated in 2019 is uncertain, and its whereabouts and the environmental impact varies across the different regions."
The report estimates that in the 10 years to 2030, the amount of e-waste will have increased to 74.7 million tonnes and double in another six. That waste can often be hazardous thanks to the materials used in modern electronics goods. As one example, an estimated 50 tonnes of mercury — used in monitors, PCBs and fluorescent lights – are dumped annually. Mercury damages the brain if it gets into the body.
E-waste also contributes to climate change, with the report estimating that 98 million tonnes of "CO2 equivalents" were released into the atmosphere from discarded fridges and air conditioners.
While Asia produces the most e-waste overall – 24.9 million tonnes (Mt) a year – Europe is the worst offender when it comes to per capita waste: 16.2kg for every man, woman and child. The Americas produce the third largest amount of waste (13.1Mt) and second largest amount per capita (13.3kg) whereas Oceania comes second with 16.1kg per capita. Africa produces the least e-waste per capita (2.5kg) and in real terms (0.7Mt).
The world's governments are aware of the enormous risks posed by e-waste and the number of countries passing legislation to deal with it is steadily increasing – there are now 78 countries with laws or regulations – but with roughly 200 countries across the globe, it is still far lower than UN goals.
Speaking about the report, UN Under-Secretary-General David Malone warned that the world is not doing enough to deal with the problem of e-waste and that "substantially greater efforts are urgently required to ensure smarter and more sustainable global production, consumption, and disposal of electrical and electronic equipment".
He argued that there was a "sense of urgency in turning around this dangerous global pattern".
The director of the ITU's telecoms arm, Doreen Bogdan-Martin, warned that e-waste is "rising three times faster than the world's population and 13 per cent faster than the world's GDP during the last five years".
What are the solutions for tackling e-waste? Aside from trying to get companies to wean themselves off constantly updating their products and to allow consumers to fix and repair their products, one of the best solutions is recycling and recovery – and there may be sufficient economic value in it to make that happen.
The report argues that e-waste is an "urban mine" with precious materials such as iron, copper and gold often present. "With the current documented collection and recycling rate of 17.4 per cent, a raw material value of $10 billion USD is recovered in an environmentally sound way from e-waste globally, and 4 Mt of raw materials could be made available for recycling," the report notes. "The recycling of iron, aluminium, and copper contributed to a net saving of 15 Mt of CO2." ®