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The overall amount of electric and electronic equipment the world uses every year increases by 2.5 million tons. Phones, radios, toys, computers –whether it has a power supply or a battery supply, it is likely to join the growing mountain of “e-waste” after being used. In 2019 alone, the world produced 53.6 million tonnes of e-waste. That’s around 7.3 kilograms per person and equivalent in weight to 350 cruise ships. Asia generated a lion’s share–24.9 million tonnes – followed by the Americas (13.1 million tonnes) and Europe (12 million tonnes), while Africa and Oceania delivered 2.9 and 0.7 million tonnes.

In 2030, the global estimate is expected to grow to 74.7 million tonnes, almost doubling the annual volume of new e-waste in just 16 years. This makes it the fastest-growing domestic waste source in the world, driven mainly by more consumers purchasing electronic products with shorter product life cycles and fewer repair opportunities.

Such products can help raise living conditions, and it is great that more and more people can actually afford them. But rising global demand outpaces our ability to recycle or dispose of electronic products responsibly. Once they’re obsolete and discarded, these items will ultimately accumulate in the atmosphere, damage the environment ecosystems, and affect people and wildlife.

 

E-waste recycling

Just about 17.4% of 2019’s e-waste was officially collected and recycled. Since 2014, the volume of recycled e-waste has only grown by 1.8 million tonnes per year. The overall amount of e-waste generated increased by 9.2 million tonnes during the same period. Around the same time, the number of undocumented e-waste is rising. In new research, we have found that Europe has the highest collection and recycling rate, accounting for around 42.5 percent of the total e-waste produced in 2019.

Asia takes second place at 11.7 percent, the Americas and Oceania were close at 9.4 percent and 8.8 percent, while Africa had the lowest rate at 0.9 percent. What happened to the rest of the world’s e-waste produced in 2019 (82.6 percent) is not clear. Approximately 8 percent of e-waste is thought to be dumped in waste bins in high-income countries, while 7 percent-20 percent is exported. In lower income countries, the scenario is much less clear, as e-waste is still handled unofficially.

Without an effective waste management system, dangerous chemicals found in e-waste, such as mercury, brominated flame retardants, chlorofluorocarbons, and hydrochlorofluorocarbons, are more likely to be released into the environment and damage people who live, work and play in e-waste scrapyards.

Mercury is used in computer displays and in fluorescent lighting, but exposure to it can cause permanent brain damage. It is estimated that about 50 tonnes of mercury are present in these undocumented e-waste streams that end up in the environment every year.

Nevertheless, e-waste does not only cause health problems. It also strongly contributes to global warming. Dumped temperature-exchange equipment, used in refrigerators and air conditioners, can gradually release greenhouse gases. Approximately 98 million tonnes are anticipated to leak from scrapyards annually, equal to 0.3 percent of global emissions from the energy sector.
Besides toxins, e-waste often includes precious metals and valuable raw materials such as gold, silver, copper, and platinum.

The overall amount of all this discarded as e-waste in 2019 was conservatively estimated at US$ 57 billion ( £ 45 billion) – a number greater than the GDP of most countries. Nevertheless, when only 17.4% of 2019’s e-waste was collected and recycled, only US$ 10 billion of this was recovered in an environmentally responsible way. Just 4 million tonnes of raw materials have been made freely available for recycling.

Fortunately, the world is slowly beginning to care about this problem. At the end of 2019, 78 countries, accounting for 71% of the world’s population, had either an e-waste management program or a regulation in place –an improvement of 5% from 2017. But in many of these countries, policies are often not legally binding and regulation is not implemented. As researchers, we will continue to track the global e-waste to promote the development of a circular economy and sustainable societies.

We hope that our efforts to monitor this growing issue will inspire governments to act quickly, reflecting the magnitude of the challenge, with laws and enforcement that will significantly increase the proportion of e-waste that is recycled safely.

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