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53.6M metric tonnes of e-waste, equaling weight of 350 cruise ships, generated globally in 2019: UN

E-waste is a health and environmental hazard, containing toxic additives or hazardous substances such as mercury, which damages the human brain and/or coordination system
(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Electrical and electronic equipment, ranging from appliances such as washing machines and electric stoves to mobile phones and laptops have become an integral part of modern societies. Such equipment are increasingly being used by smart houses and smart cities, in transport, health and security systems. This is also creating a waste stream, with the world generating a striking 53.6 million metric tonnes (Mt) of electronic waste (e-waste), an average of 7.3 kg per capita in 2019. The United Nations (UN) report warns that global e-waste -- defined as discarded products with a battery or plug -- is surging, up 21% in just five years. 

“A record 53.6 million metric tonnes of e-waste was produced globally in 2019 -- the weight of 350 cruise ships the size of the Queen Mary 2, enough to form a line 125 km long,” according to the UN's Global E-waste Monitor 2020.

The global generation of e-waste grew by 9.2 Mt since 2014 and the new analysis says that it is projected to grow to 74.7 Mt by 2030 – almost doubling in only 16 years. This makes e-waste the world's fastest-growing domestic waste stream, fueled mainly by higher consumption rates of electric and electronic equipment, short life cycles and few options for repair.

“The findings of this year’s Global E-waste Monitor suggest that humanity is not sufficiently implementing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Substantially greater efforts are urgently required to ensure smarter and more sustainable global production, consumption and disposal of electrical and electronic equipment. This report contributes mightily to the sense of urgency in turning around this dangerous global pattern,” writes David M. Malone, Rector United Nations University (UNU) & UN Under-Secretary-General, in the report. It includes experts from the United Nations University (UNU), the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR), and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). 

Researchers predict that global e-waste will reach 74 Mt by 2030, almost a doubling of e-waste in just 16 years. (UN Global eWaste Monitor/UNU/UNITAR/ITU)

E-waste in 2019 mainly consisted of small equipment (17.4 Mt), large equipment (13.1 Mt), and temperature exchange equipment (10.8 Mt). Screens and monitors, lamps, small IT, and telecommunication equipment represented 6.7 Mt, 4.7 Mt, and 0.9 Mt respectively.

Asia generated the highest quantity of e-waste in 2019 at 24.9 Mt, followed by the Americas (13.1 Mt) and Europe (12 Mt). Africa and Oceania generated 2.9 Mt and 0.7 Mt, respectively. In per capita terms, last year's discarded e-waste averaged 7.3 kg for every man, woman and child on Earth. Globally, Europe ranked first in terms of e-waste generation per capita, with 16.2 kg per capita. Oceania was second (16.1 kg per capita), followed by the Americas (13.3 kg per capita), while Asia and Africa generated 5.6 and 2.5 kg per capita, respectively. 

(UN Global eWaste Monitor)

How we produce, consume and dispose of e-waste is unsustainable, shows analysis. According to the researchers, only 17.4% of 2019's e-waste was collected and recycled. This implies that gold, silver, copper, platinum and other high-value, recoverable materials conservatively valued at $57 billion -- a sum greater than the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of most countries -- were mostly dumped or burned rather than being collected for treatment and reuse. The statistics show that in 2019, the continent with the highest collection and recycling rate was Europe at 42.5%, Asia ranked second at 11.7%, the Americas and Oceania were at 9.4% and 8.8%, respectively. Africa had the lowest rate at 0.9%.

“In 2019, the formal documented collection and recycling was 9.3 Mt, thus 17.4% compared to e-waste generated. It grew with 1.8 Mt since 2014, an annual growth of almost 0.4 Mt. However, the total e-waste generation increased by 9.2 Mt, with an annual growth of almost 2 Mt. Thus the recycling activities are not keeping pace with the global growth of e-waste,” says the study.

Since 2014, the number of countries that have adopted a national e-waste policy, legislation, or regulation in place has increased from 61 to 78. This is far from the target set by the International Telecommunication Union, which is to raise the percentage of countries with e-waste legislation to 50%.

The formal documented collection and recycling was 9.3 Mt, thus 17.4% compared to e-waste generated. (Getty Images)

How does this affect you?

E-waste is a health and environmental hazard, containing toxic additives or hazardous substances such as mercury, which damages the human brain and/or coordination system, says the research team. An estimated 50 tonnes of mercury, used in monitors, industrial compounds such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and fluorescent and energy-saving light sources, are contained in undocumented flows of e-waste annually.

“E-waste contains several toxic additives or hazardous substances, such as mercury, brominated flame retardants (BFR), and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), or hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs). The increasing levels of e-waste, low collection rates, and non-environmentally sound disposal and treatment of this waste stream pose significant risks to the environment and human health. A total of 50 t of mercury and 71 kt of BFR plastics are found in globally undocumented flows of e-waste annually, largely released into the environment and impacts the health of the exposed workers,” the findings state.

According to the analysis, recent research has found that unregulated e-waste recycling is associated with increasing numbers of adverse health effects. These include adverse birth outcomes, altered neurodevelopment, adverse learning outcomes, DNA damage, adverse cardiovascular effects, adverse respiratory effects, adverse effects on the immune system, skin diseases, hearing loss, and cancer.

“Informal and improper e-waste recycling is a major emerging hazard silently affecting our health and that of future generations. One in four children are dying from avoidable environmental exposures. One in four children could be saved if we take action to protect their health and ensure a safe environment,” says Maria Neira, Director, Environment, Climate Change and Health Department, World Health Organization (WHO), in the study.

Improper management of e-waste also contributes to global warming. The team explains that if the materials in e-waste are not recycled, they cannot substitute primary raw materials and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from extraction and refinement of primary raw materials. “The refrigerants that are found in some temperature exchange equipment are greenhouse gases. A total of 98 Mt of carbon dioxide-equivalents were released into the atmosphere from discarded fridges and air-conditioners that were not managed in an environmentally sound manner. This is approximately 0.3% of global energy-related emissions in 2019,” they emphasize.

Impact of exposure to e-waste. (UNU/UNITAR/ITU)

According to the experts, the fate of 82.6% (44.3 Mt) of e-waste generated in 2019 is uncertain and its whereabouts and the environmental impact varies across the different regions. In high-income countries, a waste recycling infrastructure is usually developed and around 8% of the e-waste is discarded in waste bins and subsequently landfilled or incinerated. This mostly comprises small equipment and small IT. Discarded products can sometimes still be refurbished and reused and thus are usually shipped as second-hand products from high-income to low- or middle-income countries. However, a considerable amount of e-waste is still exported illegally or under the guise of being for reuse or pretending to be scrap metal, the team explains. “It can be assumed that the volume of transboundary movements of used electrical and electronic equipment or e-waste ranges from 7-20% of the e-waste generated,” they add.

The team says that in middle- and low-income countries, the e-waste management infrastructure is not yet fully developed or, in some cases, is entirely absent. Hence, e-waste is managed mostly by the informal sector. In this case, e-waste is often handled under inferior conditions, causing severe health effects to workers as well as to the children who often live, work and play near e-waste management activities, say experts.

The researchers also caution that the majority of undocumented domestic and commercial e-waste is probably mixed with other waste streams, such as plastic waste and metal waste. “This means that easily recyclable fractions might be recycled but often under inferior conditions without depollution and without the recovery of all valuable materials. Therefore, such recycling is not preferred,” write authors.