Only 20% of e-waste recycled globally, UN report finds

Wednesday, 13 December, 2017

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A new report suggests that electronic waste (e-waste) is a growing problem around the world, with 44.7 million metric tonnes generated in 2016 alone.

The Global E-Waste Monitor 2017, released by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), aims to increase global awareness and draw attention to the issue of e-waste, which includes discarded products with a battery or plug including mobile phones, laptops, televisions, refrigerators and electrical toys.

In 2016, only about 20% — or 8.9 million metric tonnes — of all e-waste was recycled. Experts foresee a further 17% increase to 52.2 million metric tonnes of e-waste by 2021.

The assessment also highlights the significant and growing risk to the environment and human health due to increasing levels of e-waste and its improper and unsafe treatment and disposal through burning or in dumpsites.

However, there are now a growing number of countries adopting e-waste legislation. Currently 66% of the world population, living in 67 countries, is covered by national e-waste management laws, a significant increase from 44% in 2014.

National e-waste policies and legislation play an important role as they set standards, guidelines and obligations to govern the actions of stakeholders who are associated with e-waste.

In Australia, TechCollect is calling for more responsible e-waste disposal, with 6.5 million tonnes of e-waste going into landfill each year. Additionally, the Victorian Government is supporting the development of a new facility that aims to divert 5000 tonnes of e-waste from landfill.

“Environmental protection is one of the three pillars of sustainable development and ITU is at the forefront of advocating for the safe disposal of waste generated by information and communication technologies. E-waste management is an urgent issue in today’s digitally dependent world, where use of electronic devices is ever increasing — and is included in ITU’s Connect 2020 Agenda targets,” said ITU Secretary-General Houlin Zhao.

“The Global E-waste Monitor serves as a valuable resource for governments developing their necessary management strategies, standards and policies to reduce the adverse health and environmental effects of e-waste — and will help ITU members to realise this Connect 2020 target.”

Better e-waste data will help evaluate developments over time, set and assess targets, and contribute to developing national policies. National e-waste policies will help minimise e-waste production, prevent illegal dumping and improper treatment of e-waste, promote recycling, and create jobs in the refurbishment and recycling sector.

Low recycling rates can have a negative economic impact, as e-waste contains rich deposits of gold, silver, copper, platinum, palladium and other high-value recoverable materials. There are estimates that the value of recoverable materials contained in e-waste generated during 2016 was US$55 billion, which is more than the gross domestic product of most countries in the world.

“The world’s e-waste problem continues to grow. Improved measurement of e-waste is essential to set and monitor targets, and identify policies,” said Jakob Rhyner, vice-rector of the United Nations University (UNU).

“National data should be internationally comparable, frequently updated, published and interpreted. Existing global and regional estimates based on production and trade statistics do not adequately cover the health and environmental risks of unsafe treatment and disposal through incineration or landfilling.”

“We live in a time of transition to a more digital world, where automation, sensors and artificial intelligence are transforming industry and society,” said Antonis Mavropoulos, president of the International Solid Waste Association (ISWA).

“E-waste is the most emblematic by-product of this transition and finding the proper solutions for e-waste management is a measure of our ability to utilise the technological advances to stimulate a sustainable future and to make the circular economy a reality. We need to be able to measure and collect data and statistics on e-waste, locally and globally, in a uniform way. This report represents a significant effort in the right direction and ISWA will continue to support it as a very important first step towards the global response required.”

Earlier this year ITU, UNU and ISWA joined forces and launched the ‘Global Partnership for E-waste Statistics’. Its objective is to help countries produce e-waste statistics and to build a global e-waste database to track developments over time.

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