07-08 e-waste

[Image above] E-waste continues to grow rapidly as recycling systems lag far behind. What can be done to combat this problem? Credit: 2020 Global E-waste Monitor, United Nations University/United Nations Institute for Training and Research and the International Telecommunication Union (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 IGO)

Last December, I took a look at a rapidly growing global problem—the failure of recycling systems to properly handle electronic waste (e-waste).

Millions of tons of electrical and electronic equipment are discarded every year, and many companies that claim to “recycle” these materials are actually exporting the e-waste to developing countries instead, where it is often dumped improperly in the ground or burned, releasing toxic pollutants into the environment and negatively affecting the health of workers.

At the time my December CTT published, the most recent statistics for global e-waste came from a 2017 report that estimated almost 45 million metric tonnes (Mt) of e-waste was generated worldwide in 2016. The report predicted e-waste would increase to 52.2 million Mt by 2021.

This month, a new report was released, and its statistics are sobering—we already passed 53 million Mt in 2019 alone.

Tracking e-waste: The Global E-waste Statistics Partnership

The 2017 report and recent 2020 report were both published by the Global E-waste Statistics Partnership (GESP), a collaboration between the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), United Nations University (UNU), and International Solid Waste Association (ISWA).

Founded in 2017, GESP aims to monitor development of e-waste over time and to help countries produce e-waste statistics in an internationally standardized way.

The partnership’s first big project was the 2017 Global E-waste Monitor report referenced above, which published in December 2017. The report was a follow-up to the UNU’s Sustainable Cycles Programme’s 2014 Global E-waste Monitor report.

In June 2019, GESP launched globalewaste.org, an open source portal that visualizes e-waste data and statistics globally, by region and by country. In a UNU press release on the launch, ISWA president Antonis Mavropoulo said, “We hope that this new initiative will further stimulate the on-going efforts to tackle the e-waste challenge and drive resource recovery policies and activities towards a circular economy in the IT industry.”

The new 2020 Global E-waste Monitor report released this month marks the completion of the third big project by GESP, and the statistics contained within the report are sobering.

2020 Global E-waste Monitor: Surging waste faces a deficit of recycling

The 2020 report reveals that a record 53.6 million Mt of e-waste were generated worldwide last year, a 21% increase in five years. By 2030, this amount is expected to reach 74 million Mt—almost a doubling in just 16 years.

And yet only 17.4% of this waste was officially documented as properly collected and recycled, a statistic that indicates “recycling activities are not keeping pace with the global growth of e-waste,” the report says.

Why is e-waste growing so rapidly? The report says the growing amount is mainly fueled by higher consumption rates of electrical and electronic equipment, short life cycles, and few repair options. And though Asia generated the highest quantity of e-waste in 2019 at 24.9 million Mt, Europe ranked first worldwide in terms of e-waste generation per capita at 16.2 kg.

On a positive note, the number of countries that have adopted a national e-waste policy, legislation, or regulation has increased from 61 to 78 since 2014. Unfortunately, “regulatory advances in some regions are slow, enforcement is poor, and policy, legislation, or regulation does not yet stimulate the collection and proper management of e-waste due to lack of investment and political motivation,” the report says.

So what can be done to combat the amount of e-waste and improve recycling? One of the most important and effective approaches is to raise awareness of the problem. The report mentions several initiatives that GESP is pursuing, such as organizing workshops on e-waste statistics in various countries.

GESP is not the only organization carefully tracking and combating the e-waste problem. One nonprofit called the Basel Action Network has launched some notable initiatives, including running an e-Trash Transparency Project that holds unethical e-waste recycling companies accountable and establishing an e-Stewards Program to encourage socially and environmentally conscious behavior.

Interested in learning more about e-waste and other initiatives to combat it? The below video by YouTuber Joe Scott provides a good overview of the whole topic, with discussion of global efforts to combat e-waste starting around the 9:50 mark.

Credit: Joe Scott, YouTube