Majority of 40 million tonne global e-waste binned, says UNU

The amount of discarded electrical and electronic equipment (e-waste) globally reached 41.8 million tonnes in 2014, with the vast majority neither re-used nor disposed of in an environmentally friendly way.

A new United Nations University (UNU) report says the e-waste represents $52 billion worth of potentially reusable resources, but thinks that less than a sixth was recycled properly or made available for re-use.

According to the report the United States and China together produced nearly a third of the total sum alone.

In the European Union 8% of its e-waste will just be thrown into waste bins – amounting to 0.7 million tonnes.

Mobile Phones

More than half of the global e-waste (60%) constitutes discarded kitchen, laundry and bathroom equipment, with washing machines, clothes dryers, dishwashers, and electric stoves creating 11.8 million tonnes of waste, the UNU says.

12.8 million tonnes of small equipment such as vacuum cleaners, microwaves, toasters, electric shavers and video cameras were also discarded.

Mobile phones, personal computers and printers – a source of e-waste that has garnered particular attention in recent months – accounted for 7% and produced 6.3 million tonnes of screens.

Just last month telecoms company O2 created a mobile from recycled parts and grass to highlight the problem of 28-125 million phones languishing unused in the UK, and to encourage the use of its recycling scheme.

Under-valued Resource

While the e-waste contains many ‘toxic’ substances that need proper disposal,  the UNU also says that the e-waste contains a wealth of recyclable material not currently taken full advantage of. 

It estimates the waste contains 16,500 kilotons of iron, 1,900 kilotons of copper, and 300 tonnes of gold as well as significant amounts of silver, aluminium and palladium.

“The UNU has a role to play in paving paths towards solutions of the e-waste problem, because it is one of the pressing problems of humankind,” the UNU Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability’s director Kazuhiko Takemoto said: “Over the past two decades, policymakers, producers and recyclers in various countries have created specialised “take-back and treatment systems” to collect waste from final owners and process it in professional treatment facilities.”

“Unfortunately, despite these efforts, the collection and state-of-the-art treatment of e-waste is limited, and most nations are still without such e-waste management systems.”

Last month the UK Government allocated £600,000 to help develop Britain’s first ‘plasma facility‘ which will eventually enable 98% of materials contained within e-waste to be recovered, including considerable amounts of gold, silver and platinum.

Recycling Opportunity

In related news municipal services contractor Biffa has collected 400 tonnes of small waste household electrical and electronic items (WEEE) since it launched its collection service three years ago.

Residents are able to put out a small bag of WEEE items alongside their normal recycling to be collected and recycled.

Since its launch in Woking in 2011, a further 13 councils have introduced the service.

The target for small mixed WEEE recycling in the UK in 2015 is 137,000. The department for Business, Innovation and Skills recently announced the UK missed its target for 2014 by less than 1%.

Biffa Municipal’s commercial director Pete Dickson said: “Small WEEE collections at the kerbside are seen by local authorities as an easy win for them, for Biffa, and for residents.”

“The service has high value as it’s an easy, intuitive way for residents to capture and recycle a difficult waste stream, and they respond accordingly.”

Lucinda Dann

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