Global eWaste generation rises by 9.2m MTs in eight years
•Only 78 countries have an eWaste policy
Discarded electrical and electronic equipment (such as phones, laptops, fridges, sensors and TVs) is referred to as e-waste or Waste, Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) and has continued to rise across the globe.
E-waste is a growing challenge and since 2014, the global generation has grown by 9.2 million metric tonnes (Mt) (21per cent).
According to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the fate of over four-fifths (82.6 per cent or 44.3 Mt) of e-waste generated in 2019 is unknown, as well as its impact on the environment.
ITU said e-waste contains substances that can be hazardous to human health and the environment if not dealt with properly – including mercury, cadmium and lead. An estimated total of 50 tonnes of mercury might be contained within the 44.3 Mt of e-waste whose destination is unknown.
According to the United Nation arm in charge of global telecommunications, the global regulatory environment for e-waste is rather weak, disclosing that currently, only 78 out of 193 (40 per cent of countries) are covered by an e-waste policy, legislation or regulation.
ITU said by adopting the Connect 2030 Agenda, member states have set a global e-waste target for 2023 to increase the global recycling rate to 30 per cent and to raise the percentage of countries with e-waste legislation to 50 per cent. They have also committed to reducing the volume of redundant e-waste by 50 per cent.
The telecoms body, which said matching growth in ICT networks and services, noted that the latest estimates showed that the world now discards approximately 53.6 million Mt of e-waste per year – only 17.4 per cent is formally collected and recycled.
“In 2019, the fate of 44.3 Mt of generated e-waste was unknown – this waste was either not documented, being discarded in landfill, burned or illegally traded and treated in a sub-standard way. With the current approach to end-of-life management of e-waste, globally, a transition to a circular economy for ICT equipment in particular, is proving challenging,” it stated.
According to ITU, up to 69 elements from the periodic table can be found in electrical and electronic equipment (EEE). These include critical raw materials and precious metals. E-waste can result in the unnecessary loss of scarce and valuable natural materials, through failure to recycle other less toxic, but high-value rare materials, such as gold, platinum, and cobalt, putting pressure on the limited natural resources available.
For example, one ton of discarded mobile phones or PCs can contain up to 280 grams of gold, as well as high levels of base metals. E-waste contains toxic additives or hazardous substances, commonly including heavy metals such as mercury, cadmium and lead, and chemicals such as brominated flame-retardants, which can pollute land, air and aquatic environments and pose significant health risks, especially if treated inadequately.
According to ITU, improper e-waste management can also contribute to global warming, especially since refrigerants in some temperature exchange equipment are potent greenhouse gases. It disclosed that a total of 98 Mt of CO2-equivalents were potentially released into the atmosphere globally in 2019 from discarded fridges and air conditioners that were not managed in an environmentally sound manner.
ITU said more and more products such as smart fridges, freezers and smart washing machines are increasing their connectivity capabilities, in the growing Internet of Things (IoT). Furthermore, products that were not traditionally electrified may often now incorporate circuitry, including wearable electronics.
On the upside, ITU said e-waste contains several valuable raw materials such as gold, copper and iron. In 2019, the value of raw materials in e-waste generated was estimated at $57 billion. At the current collection and recycling rate (17.4 per cent), a raw material value of $10 billion could be recovered. Under the right conditions, with due health and safety precautions, e-waste recycling and refurbishment activities could also potentially create green jobs worldwide.
“Through greater collaboration, multinationals, small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), entrepreneurs, academia, trade unions, civil society and associations could create a ‘circular economy for electronics where the waste is designed out, the environmental impact could be reduced and decent work created for millions.