Electronic waste – discarded products with a battery or plug – is the world’s fastest growing waste stream, according to a new UN report.
The 2020 Global E-waste Monitor reveals that a record 53.6 million metric tonnes (Mt) was generated worldwide last year, a 21% increase in five years. This expected to reach 74 Mt by 2030 – almost a doubling in just 16 years.
For perspective, the UN says in a statement, last year’s e-waste weighed substantially more than all the adults in Europe.
Glaringly, only 17.4% of waste was collected and recycled. This means, the statement says, that gold, silver, copper, platinum and other high-value, recoverable materials conservatively valued at US$57 billion were mostly dumped or burned.
Asia generated 24.9 Mt of e-waste – nearly half of the total – followed by the Americas (13.1), Europe (12), Africa (2.9) and Oceania (0.7).
However, Europe ranked first in terms of generation per capita with 16.2 kilograms, followed by Oceania (16.1) followed by the Americas (13), Asia (5.6) and Africa (2.5).
“Substantially greater efforts are urgently required to ensure smarter and more sustainable global production, consumption, and disposal of electrical and electronic equipment,” says David M Malone, the UN’s Under-Secretary-General.
“This report contributes mightily to the sense of urgency in turning around this dangerous global pattern.”
E-waste categories with the fastest growth in terms of total weight are temperature exchange equipment (up 7%), large equipment (5%), and lamps and small equipment (4%). This trend is driven by growing use of products that improve living standards in lower income countries, the report says.
In contrast, the category for small IT and telecommunication equipment is growing more slowly, with screens and monitors actually showing a 1% decrease since 2014, explained largely by lighter flat panel displays replacing heavy CRT monitors and screens
In 2019, an estimated 98 Mt of CO2 equivalents were released into the atmosphere from discarded fridges and air-conditioners, contributing roughly 0.3% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Around 50 tonnes of mercury – used in monitors, printed circuit boards and fluorescent and energy-saving light sources – are contained in undocumented flows of e-waste annually.
Read science facts, not fiction...
There’s never been a more important time to explain the facts, cherish evidence-based knowledge and to showcase the latest scientific, technological and engineering breakthroughs. Cosmos is published by The Royal Institution of Australia, a charity dedicated to connecting people with the world of science. Financial contributions, however big or small, help us provide access to trusted science information at a time when the world needs it most. Please support us by making a donation or purchasing a subscription today.