UN: E-waste is growing 5x faster than it can be recycled

Right to Repair should be the Obligation to Repair, if we want to avoid drowning in trashed electronics

We're creating electronic waste almost five times faster than we're recycling it using documented methods, according to a United Nations report released on Wednesday.

And the economic impact is significant. While e-waste recycling has benefits estimated to include $23 billion of monetized value from avoided greenhouse gas emissions and $28 billion of recovered materials like gold, copper, and iron, it also comes at a cost – $10 billion associated with e-waste treatment and $78 billion of externalized costs to people and the environment.

Overall, this puts the net annual economic monetary cost of e-waste at $37 billion. And this is expected to reach $40 billion by 2030 if improvements in e-waste management and policies aren't made.

The 2024 Global E-waste Monitor (GEM) [PDF] was prepared by the UN's International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and the UN Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR).

The report reveals that annual generation of e-waste – discarded devices with a plug or battery – is growing at a rate of 2.6 million metric tons per year (a metric ton is equivalent to roughly 2,204.62 pounds – all units in this story are metric) and is expected to reach 82 million tons by 2030, from 62 million tons in 2022.

Those 62 million tons, the report suggests, would fill 1.55 million 40-ton trucks, which would roughly encircle the equator – if you parked them end-to-end and paved the relevant oceans. And that's to say nothing of the economic consequences of taking so many trucks out of service and disrupting global shipping routes with an equatorial parking structure, so let's not.

Of the 62 million tons of e-waste generated globally in 2022, an estimated 13.8 million tons was documented, collected, and properly recycled. Another 16 million tons is said to have been recycled through undocumented channels in high and middle-income countries with developed waste management infrastructure.

A further 18 million tons, it is estimated, was processed in low and middle-low income countries without developed e-waste management systems – through which toxic chemicals get released. And the final 14 million tons are said to have been thrown away to end up mainly in landfills – also not ideal.

The rate of e-waste creation and recycling varies by region. In Europe, per capita e-waste generation is 17.6 kg and recycling is 7.5 kg. In Oceania, it's 16.1 kg and 6.7 kg respectively. In the Americas, it's 14.1 kg and 4.2 kg.

The annual average formal collection and recycling rate in Europe is 42.8 percent, compared to 41.4 percent in Oceania, 30 percent in the Americas, 11.8 percent in Asia, and 0.7 percent in Africa.

The report calls for stronger formal e-waste management and for policy makers to make sure that initiatives to promote renewable energy don't end up undermining environmental concerns. It notes, for example, that e-waste from photovoltaic panels – to generate solar power – is expected to quadruple from 0.6 million tons in 2022 to 2.4 million tons in 2030.

"From discarded televisions to dumped telephones, an enormous amount of e-waste is generated around the world," lamented Cosmas Luckyson Zavazava, director of ITU's Telecommunication Development Bureau.

"The latest research shows that the global challenge posed by e-waste is only going to grow. With less than half of the world implementing and enforcing approaches to manage the problem, this raises the alarm for sound regulations to increase collection and recycling."

"We make and toss way too many electronics, and we are doing thousands of years of damage to the world in the process," observed Nathan Proctor, senior director of US PIRG Campaign for the Right to Repair, in an email to The Register.

"Americans are spending more and more on electronic devices which have shrinking life spans. We need to build products to last, and make sure we can fix them when they break. These findings only reinforce the need to advance the Right to Repair, and address other issues around electronics obsolescence."

Gay Gordon-Byrne, executive director of The Repair Association, a US-based advocacy group, told The Register that it's clear that the volume of e-waste is growing, at least in terms of units. She noted that e-waste is based on weight, so there's a disconnect in how calculations are made.

"We've had some of our charitable reuse partners tell us that they can only recover about 15 percent of donated materials due to lack of access to repair service materials," she said. "The rest of the equipment has to be shredded."

Gordon-Byrne argued that as we learn more about how little actual recycling is being done, we will have more motivation to reduce e-waste through repair and reuse. ®

More about


Send us news

Other stories you might like