Electrical and Electronic Equipment (EEE) is increasingly in demand in today’s society, driven by higher levels of disposable income, increasing urbanization and industrialization, and population growth.
A large proportion of EEE has a short life span, and is often perceived as being difficult or expensive to repair. Brands spend billions creating consumer demand for the latest models, leaving older technology obsolete and unwanted even when it remains serviceable.
After its use, EEE is disposed of and becomes Electronic Waste, often shortened to e-waste.
E-Waste contains a mixture of valuable materials that can be recycled (but which usually aren’t), and toxic materials such as lead, mercury and cadmium which can be hazardous to our health and to the environment.
In this article, I will reveal the latest research, facts and statistics which illustrate the scale and consequences of the global e-waste problem.
53.6 Mt (Million Metric Tonnes) of e-waste was generated globally in 2019.
On average, the global e-waste generation has increased by 2 Mt annually over the last decade
Global electronic waste volume is projected to grow to 74.7 Mt by 2030 – almost doubling in only 16 years.
Asia (24.9 Mt), the Americas (13.1 Mt) and Europe (12Mt) produced the overwhelming majority of E-Waste when measured by total weight.
However, when measured per capita, Europeans (16.2 Kg) produce the most e-waste per person, followed by Oceania (16.1 Kg) and the Americas (13.3 Kg).
The 53.6 Mt is comprised of the following items:
Of these categories, screens and monitors is the only one whose production has decreased since 2014, and this is only because older, heavier monitors are no longer produced.
Only 17.4% of total global e-waste is known to have been collected and properly recycled. This figure has fallen in the last 5 years as a percentage of total waste generated.
Europe has by far the highest collection and recycling rate at 42.5%. Asia, in second place, had a rate of just 11.7%. Africa has the lowest at just 0.9%.
82.6% of electronic waste is not recycled (via official channels) and therefore not documented. Researchers cannot accurately track where it ends up.
It is estimated that 8% of e-waste is discarded in the trash, and subsequently goes to landfill or gets incinerated. This consists mostly of smaller electrical and It items (tablets, mobile phones etc).
Up to 20% is estimated to be exported, either as second hand products or as pure waste.
By the end of 2019, 78 countries had a national e-waste policy, legislation, or regulation. This covered some 71% of the world’s population, a significant increase from just 44% 5 years previously.
However, the enforcement of legislation in some countries is poor or even non existent.
Furthermore, there are still 25 US states, including Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts, and Nevada, that still do not have any legislation requiring e-waste to be recycled.
E-waste contains several scarce and valuable raw materials, most of which are currently not recaptured. That’s why the global e-waste management market is likely to grow, due to financial reasons as well as environmental ones.
The market was valued at $49,880 million in 2020, and it is projected to almost triple to $143,870 million by 2028.
Although its fate is unproven, estimates suggest that most undocumented electronic waste is mixed with other waste, such as plastic and metal. This means that easily recyclable parts might be recycled, but it will usually be done poorly.
No steps will be taken to remove toxic elements, and many more valuable reusable components might be missed. This is why e-waste must be recycled separately.
There are several high value raw materials in e-waste, including gold, copper and iron. It is estimated that the 53.6 Mt of e-waste generated in 2019 contained raw materials worth around $57 billion.
Considering that 82.6% of electronic waste wasn’t recycled, that translates as nearly $47 billion worth of valuable metals that were never recovered.
E-waste does not biodegrade, and therefore will accumulate wherever it is dumped, in much the same way that plastic waste does.
Over time, any greenhouse gases contained within the e-waste will slowly be released into the atmosphere.
The toxic materials such as mercury and BFR plastics that are found in e-waste have a negative effect on the environment and health of people or animals that come into contact with it.
When disposed of improperly, these chemicals can be released indefinitely into the air, soil or water which is detrimental to ecosystems as well as human populations.
When e-waste materials are not recycled, new raw materials are required to create new EEE. Every electronic device manufactured has its own carbon footprint.
The extraction and refinement of materials required to produce EEE creates greenhouse gases. This could be reduced or avoided if e-waste was recycled.
Also, refrigerants used in temperature control EEE such as refrigerators or air conditioners are themselves greenhouse gases. In 2019, discarded fridges and air con units released CO2 equivalents that actually accounted for around 0.3% of total global energy-related emissions.
Electronic waste is an under-reported yet still very significant global issue. It wastes precious resources, contributes to climate change, is hazardous to the environment and to human health.
Worst of all, it’s completely unnecessary. This is one issue that each of us can help to tackle at an individual level. If we make a conscious decision to live a more eco-friendly lifestyle, our choices can make a big difference.
Firstly, we need to dispose of used EEE correctly.
In developed countries, we all have access to facilities that will recycle our used electronic equipment for us. The fact that so many people don’t do this is down to either a lack of education or sheer laziness.
Secondly, we can choose to buy sustainable options.
We’ve seen that smaller items add up to the largest share of global e-waste. So make simple choices such as buying an eco-friendly phone case instead of a plastic one, or choosing a sustainable electric toothbrush with recyclable heads.
Be mindful of what you buy, how you use it, and how you dispose of it when it’s finally at the end of its lifespan.
Thirdly, don’t be so hasty in discarding old technology.
Many items can be repaired rather than replaced, often much more cheaply than simply spending on a newer model.
Also consider that the less frequently and more carefully we use our electrical appliances, the longer they last.
E-waste is the one problem that we can do something about without relying on corporations or governments. So let’s all do our bit. Your children, and theirs, will thank you for it.