E-waste grows 8% in two years with just 20% recycled

A new assessment on global electronic waste (e-waste), policies and statistics, The Global E-Waste Monitor 2017,  has been released by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) – the United Nations specialized agency for information and communication technology – together the United Nations University (UNU) and the International Solid Waste Association (ISWA). The report seeks to increase global awareness and draw attention to the growing world issue of e-waste, which includes discarded products with a battery or plug including mobile phones, laptops, televisions, refrigerators and electrical toys.

The assessment shows that in 2016, 44.7 million metric tonnes of e-waste were generated, up 3.3 metric tonnes (8 per cent) from 2014.  In 2016, only about 20 per cent – or 8.9 million metric tonnes – of all e-waste was recycled. Experts foresee a further 17 per cent increase — to 52.2 million metric tonnes of e-waste by 2021.

The assessment also highlights the significant and growing risk to the environment and human health due to increasing levels of e-waste and its improper and unsafe treatment and disposal through burning or in dumpsites.

The assessment also notes positive news – that there is now a growing number of countries adopting e-waste legislation. Currently 66 per cent of the world population, living in 67 countries, is covered by national e-waste management laws, a significant increase from 44 per cent in 2014.

National e-waste policies and legislation play an important role as they set standards, guidelines and obligations to govern the actions of stakeholders who are associated with e-waste.

“Environmental protection is one of the three pillars of sustainable development and ITU is at the forefront of advocating for the safe disposal of waste generated by information and communication technologies. E-waste management is an urgent issue in today’s digitally dependent world, where use of electronic devices is ever increasing – and is included in ITU’s Connect 2020 Agenda targets,” said ITU Secretary-General Houlin Zhao. “The Global E-waste Monitor serves as a valuable resource for governments developing their necessary management strategies, standards and policies to reduce the adverse health and environmental effects of e-waste – and will help ITU members to realize this Connect 2020 target.”

“With 53.6 per cent of global households now having Internet access, information and communications technologies are improving peoples’ lives and empowering them to enhance their social and economic well-being,” said Brahima Sanou, Director of the ITU Telecommunication Development Bureau. “The Global E-Waste Monitor represents an important step in identifying solutions for e-waste.  Better e-waste data will help evaluate developments over time, set and assess targets, and contribute to developing national policies. National e-waste policies will help minimize e-waste production, prevent illegal dumping and improper treatment of e-waste, promote recycling, and create jobs in the refurbishment and recycling sector.”

The assessment also reports that low recycling rates can have a negative economic impact, as e-waste contains rich deposits of gold, silver, copper, platinum, palladium and other high value recoverable materials. It estimates that the value of recoverable materials contained in e-waste generated during 2016 was US $55 billion, which is more than the Gross Domestic Product of most countries in the world.

“The world’s e-waste problem continues to grow.  Improved measurement of e-waste is essential to set and monitor targets, and identify policies,” said Jakob Rhyner, Vice-Rector of the United Nations University. “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.”

“We live in a time of transition to a more digital world, where automation, sensors and artificial intelligence are transforming industry and society,” said Antonis Mavropoulos, President of the International Solid Waste association (ISWA). “E-waste is the most emblematic by-product of this transition and finding the proper solutions for e-waste management is a measure of our ability to utilize the technological advances to stimulate a sustainable future and to make the circular economy a reality. We need to be able to measure and collect data and statistics on e-waste, locally and globally, in a uniform way. This report represents a significant effort in the right direction and ISWA will continue to support it as a very important first step towards the global response required.”

Earlier this year ITU, UNU and ISWA joined forces and launched the “Global Partnership for E-waste Statistics”. Its objective is to help countries produce e-waste statistics and to build a global e-waste database to track developments over time.

This partnership further aims to map recycling opportunities from e-waste, pollutants and e-waste related health effects, along with building national and regional capacities to help countries produce reliable and comparable e-waste statistics that can identify best practices of global e-waste management. Ultimately, its work will contribute to the achievement of Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) 11.6 and 12.5 by monitoring relevant waste streams and tracking the ITU Connect 2020 target 3.2 on e-waste.

Key findings:

The 2017 Global E-waste Monitor reports that global e-waste — discarded products with a battery or plug — is a staggering 44.7 million metric tonnes (Mt) generated in 2016 — up 3.3 Mt or 8% from 2014.

• In 2016 the world generated e-waste — everything from end-of-life refrigerators and television sets to solar panels, mobile phones and computers — equal in weight to almost nine Great Pyramids of Giza, 6,700 Eiffel Towers, or 1.23 million fully loaded 18-wheel 40-ton trucks, enough to form a line 28,160 km long, the distance from New York to Bangkok and back.

• Experts foresee a further 17% increase — to 52.2 million metric tonnes of e-waste by 2021, — the fastest growing part of the world’s domestic waste stream.

• Only 20% of 2016’s e-waste is documented to have been collected and recycled despite rich deposits of gold, silver, copper, platinum, palladium and other high value recoverable materials.

• The conservatively estimated value of recoverable materials in last year’s e-waste was US $55 billion,

which is more than the 2016 Gross Domestic Product of most countries in the world.

• About 4% of 2016’s e-waste is known to have been thrown into landfills.

• 76% or 34.1 Mt of e-waste likely ended up incinerated, in landfills, recycled in informal (backyard)

operations or remain stored in our households.

• On a per capita basis, the report shows a rising trend as well. Falling prices now make electronic and electrical devices affordable for most people world-wide while encouraging early equipment  replacement or new acquisitions in wealthier countries.

• As a result, the average worldwide per capita e-waste generated was 6.1 kilograms, up 5% from 5.8 kg in 2014.

• The highest per capita e-waste generators (at 17.3 kilograms per inhabitant) were Australia, New Zealand and the other the nations of Oceania, with only 6% formally collected and recycled.

• Europe (including Russia) is the second largest generator of e-waste per inhabitant with an average of

16.6 kg per inhabitant. However, Europe has the highest collection rate (35%).

• The Americas generates 11.6 kg per inhabitant and collects only 17%, comparable to the col-lection rate in Asia (15%). However, at 4.2 kg per inhabitant, Asia generates only about one third of America’s ewaste per capita.

• Africa, meanwhile, generates 1.9 kg per inhabitant, with little information available on its collection rate.

• The 3 EEE categories that contribute the most to e-waste are also growing fastest. It is expected that the following three EEE categories, which already constitute 75% of global e-waste by weight (33.6 Mt of 44.7Mt), will also see the fastest growth:

  • Small equipment (ie. vacuum cleaners, microwaves, ventilation equipment, toasters, electric kettles, electric shavers, scales, calculators, radio sets, video cameras, electrical and electronic toys, small electrical and electronic tools, small medical devices, small monitoring and control instruments). In 2016: 16.8 Mt generated, with an annual growth rate of 4 % per year to 2020
  • Large equipment (ie. washing machines, clothes dryers, dish-washing machines, electric stoves, large printing machines, copying equipment, photovoltaic panels). In 2016: 9.2 Mt generated, with an annual growth of 4 % per year to 2020
  • Temperature Exchange Equipment (ie. refrigerators, freezers, air conditioners, heat pumps). In 2016: 7.6 Mt generated, with an annual growth of 6 % per year to 2020

• Expected to grow less quickly by weight due to miniaturization:

Small IT and telecommunication equipment (ie mobile phones, Global Positioning Systems (GPS), pocket calculators, routers, personal computers, printers, telephones). In 2016: 3.9 Mt generated, with an annual growth of 2 % per year to 2020.

• Little growth expected:

Lamps (ie. fluorescent lamps, high intensity discharge lamps, LED lamps). In 2016: 0.7 Mt generated, with an annual growth rate of 1 % per year to 2020

• Expected to decline by weight in years to come:

Screens (ie. televisions, monitors, laptops, notebooks, tablets), with heavy CRT screens being replaced with flat panel displays. In 2016: 6.6 Mt generated, with an annual decline of 3 % per year to 2020.

• Each product within the six e-waste categories has a different lifetime profile, which means that each category has different waste quantities, economic values, and potential environmental and health impacts if recycled inappropriately. Consequently, the collection and logistical processes and recycling technology differ for each category. European studies show consumers’ attitudes when disposing of types of electrical and electronic equipment also vary.

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