Report: Electronic waste up 21% in 5 years, with $57bn dumped annually

E-waste is not just a resource problem - it is also a contributor to climate change

That is according to the latest edition of the UN’s global e-waste monitor report, which tracks e-waste on an international, national and regional basis using official corporate and government figures.

The report reveals that 21% more e-waste was recorded in 2019 than 2014, meaning it is still the world’s fastest-growing domestic waste stream. The report states that the total value of the raw materials included in this waste mountain is around $57bn (£45.7bn).

Off this e-waste, just 17.4% was confirmed as collected and recycled last year. Given that the most valuable components of electronics – those containing iron, copper and gold – are more commonly recycled than plastic and glass components, the report puts the value of the material captured for recycling at $10bn (£8bn).

While this recycling is thought to have mitigated the emission of 15 metric tonnes of greenhouse gases (GHGs), the 44.3 metric tonnes of e-waste which went undocumented in 2019 is likely to generate 98 metric tonnes of GHG emissions over its life-cycle.

And, aside from its climate impact, the effects of e-waste on human health, the natural environment and social equality are profound, the report concludes. The flows of e-waste which went undocumented in 2019 contained 50 tonnes of mercury and 71 kilotons of plastics, which have been proven to seep into soil, waterways and, eventually, food chains. Moreover, e-waste often contains bromine and chlorine. The impacts of this pollution will be most profoundly felt in developing regions which, despite having poor waste management infrastructure, accept waste imports in a bid to create economic benefits.

Looking to the future, the report predicts that global e-waste levels will skyrocket to 74 metric tonnes by 2030 – almost double the figure recorded in 2014. Population growth and digitisation will fuel higher electronics consumption rates, the report warns, while corporates and legislators are unlikely to implement measures that will extend project lifecycles and broaden opportunities for repair.

The major exception to this trend to date comes from the EU, which unveiled its Circular Economy Package earlier this year. The package names the electronics sector as a “priority” for implementing a “right to repair” approach and floats an EU-wide take-back scheme for old phones, chargers and tablets.

Nonetheless, Europe has consistently been producing less e-waste than Asia and the Americas, which generated 24.9 metric tonnes and 13.1 metric tonnes in 2019 respectively, compared with 12 metric tonnes in the EU and UK.

The report concludes by urging decision-makers to collaboratively develop and adopt an internationally recognised methodology for measuring and monitoring e-waste. Shared targets should also be created, with particular geographical hotspots and planned policy changes taken into account. Stronger “polluter pays” legislation should also be implemented – a measure which would create a stronger waste management sector in developing regions while mitigating the health and climate impacts of e-waste – the report urges.

UK focus

In a bid to minimise its contribution to the global e-waste mountain, the UK Government has earmarked more than £8m generated through compliance fees from the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE) for projects that increase the reuse and recycling of electronic items. The fund will be spread across the next three years, with £1m set aside for research projects, £3m to be invested in behaviour change projects and the remaining £4m to be spent on local projects that boost reuse and recycling.

Moreover, the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) is currently conducting an inquiry into how existing UK infrastructure, economics and cultural norms can be changed to create a more circular economy for e-waste.  The inquiry had been paused due to the impacts of Covid-19 on Parliament, but recently re-started.

Experts believe that, along with stronger mandates for corporates and stricter export regulations, behaviour change initiatives will need to be deployed to create a truly circular electronics economy in the UK.

Recent research from the Royal Society of Chemistry found that 96% of UK adults are hoarding one or more small electronic items, with less than one-fifth aware of how to recycling them and more than two-thirds planning to keep them indefinitely.

Similarly, non-profit Material Focus believes that the UK economy would receive a £370m boost if all small electricals hoarded in homes and offices were recycled. The organisation is currently running a communications campaign called ‘Recycle Your Electricals’, informing consumers as to how they can recycle or resell devices responsibly.

Businesses already offering e-waste recycling campaigns with supporting communications include O2, Dixons Carphone and Google, alongside BT, Virgin and Sky.

Sarah George

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