Global e-waste climbs 8% in two years, but disposal discrepancies remain

More than 44 million metric tonnes of electronic waste were generated in 2016, but only 20% has been documented as being collected and recycled, a new report launched today (13 December) has found.

The Global E-waste Monitor 2017 found that items ranging from televisions to solar panels created an e-waste “mountain” equal in weight to almost nine Great Pyramids of Giza. Alarmingly, only one-fifth of global e-waste is being recycled, despite having an estimated value of recoverable materials, such as gold, copper and platinum, of $55bn.

Produced by the United Nations University (UNU), the report anticipates a 17% increase in e-waste by 2021, making it the fastest growing domestic waste stream globally. Between 2014 and 2017, e-waste levels grew by 8%.

“The world’s e-waste problem continues to grow,” the UNU’s vice-rector Jakob Rhyner said. “Improved measurement of e-waste is essential to set and monitor targets, and identify policies. National data should be internationally comparable, frequently updated, published, and interpreted.

“Existing global and regional estimates based on production and trade statistics do not adequately cover the health and environmental risks of unsafe treatment and disposal through incineration or landfilling.”

According to the report, just 4% of e-waste produced in 2016 is known to have been discarded into landfills. However, more than 75% is believed to have been incinerated, recycled through informal operations or still remains stored in households.

Despite 66% of the global population being covered by national e-waste management laws, only 41 countries quantify e-waste generation and recycling streams. This has led to around 34.1 million metric tonnes of the total waste categorised as “simply unknown”.

“Having a national e-waste management regime in place does not always correspond to enforcement and setting the measurable collection and recycling targets essential for effective policies,” the report notes.

The report notes that Europe is the second largest e-waste generator, behind the US, per inhabitant, but that it has the highest collection rate at 35%. Africa, meanwhile, generates 1.9kg per inhabitant, but there is hardly any information on collection rates.

Small, large and temperature exchange equipment – such as refrigerators – contribute to 75% of global e-waste by weight and the report anticipates that these will be the areas of fastest growth. More disposable income and increased technological applications were cited as drivers for the increase.

More phones than people

Interestingly, the report notes that the number of mobile phone subscriptions now exceeds the world’s population. More than eight in 10 people on Earth are covered by broadband signal and the population of 7.4 billion has 7.7 billion mobile-cellular subscriptions.

The report also found that many analogue TVs are unnecessarily trashed, while the average smartphone lifecycle is between 18 months to two years.

Nations have been implored by the UNU to create better design practices in electrical and electronic equipment to facilitate reuse and recycling (EEE), and implement better tracking of e-waste and any recoverable resources.

Earlier this year, it was revealed that a record 16 million tonnes of electronic trash, containing both toxic and valuable materials, were generated in a single year – up 63% in five years – across Asia.

The Basel Action Network (BAN) has reiterated a plea for electronic companies to publicly publish information on e-waste destinations. This follows an investigation revealing that many discarded electronic items are being exported to Asia for treatment, leading to unsafe labour and environmental conditions in the recipient countries.

Matt Mace

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