United Nations assessment on global e-waste finds an 8% rise over 2 years, with only 20% being recycled

Above image: Global e-waste generated (2017-2021 are estimates)/ Source: The Global E-Waste Monitor 2017, published by the International Telecommunication Union, the United Nations University and the International Solid Waste Association

Above image: Global e-waste generated (2017-2021 are estimates)/ Source: The Global E-Waste Monitor 2017, published by the International Telecommunication Union, the United Nations University and the International Solid Waste Association

The positive is a growing number of countries adopting e-waste legislation; currently 66 per cent of the world population, living in 67 countries, is covered by national e-waste management laws.

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) – the United Nations specialised agency for information and communication technology, has published a new assessment on global electronic waste (e-waste), policies and statistics, The Global E-Waste Monitor 2017.

The report was released by ITU together the United Nations University (UNU) and the International Solid Waste Association (ISWA). The report seeks to increase global awareness and draw attention to the growing world issue of e-waste.

Electronic waste, or e-waste, refers to all items of electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) and its parts that have been discarded by its owner as waste without the intent of re-use. This includes discarded products with a battery or plug including mobile phones, laptops, televisions, refrigerators and electrical toys.

The assessment found that in 2016, 44.7 million metric tonnes (Mt) of e-waste were generated, increasing by 3.3 million metric tonnes (8 per cent) from 2014.  In 2016, only about 20 per cent – or 8.9 million metric tonnes – of all e-waste was recycled. Experts foresee a further 17 per cent increase — to 52.2 million metric tonnes of e-waste by 2021.

The growing amount of e-waste is the result of multiple trends. Rapid technological advances are driving innovation, efficiency, and social and economic development and there is an increasing number of users of ICT (information and communication technology) and. By 2017, close to half the world’s population uses the internet and most people in the world have access to mobile networks and services. Many people own more than one ICT device, and replacement cycles for mobile phones and computers, and also for other devices and equipment, are becoming shorter. At the same time, disposable incomes in many developing countries are increasing and a growing global middle-class is able to spend more on electrical and electronic equipment. Current trends suggest that the amount of e-waste generated will increase substantially over the next decades, and that better data to track these developments are needed.

In 2016, Asia generated the largest amount of e-waste (18.2 Mt), followed by Europe (12.3 Mt), the Americas (11.3 Mt), Africa (2.2 Mt), and Oceania (0.7 Mt). While the smallest in terms of total e-waste generated, Oceania was the highest generator of e-waste per inhabitant (17.3 kg/inh), with only 6% of e-waste documented to be collected and recycled. Europe is the second largest generator of e-waste per inhabitant with an average of 16.6 kg/inh but it has the highest collection rate (35%). The Americas generate 11.6 kg/inh and collect only 17% of the e-waste generated in the countries, which is comparable to the collection rate in Asia (15%). However, Asia generates less e-waste per inhabitant (4,2 kg/inh). Africa generates only 1.9 kg/inh and little information is available on its collection rate. The report provides regional breakdowns for Africa, Americas, Asia, Europe, and Oceania.

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. Dismantling processes that do not utilise adequate means, facilities, and trained people pose additional threats to people and the planet. This presents challenges to the achievement of SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) related to environmental protection (Goals 6- clean water and sanitation, 11 -sustainable cities and communities, 12, and 14- life below water) and health (Goal 3).

The assessment notes the positive news that there is now a growing number of countries adopting e-waste legislation. Currently 66 per cent of the world population, living in 67 countries, is covered by national e-waste management laws, a significant increase from 44 per cent 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.

The large increase was mainly attributed to India, where legislation was adopted in 2016. The most populous countries in Asia currently have e-waste rules, whereas only a handful of countries in Africa have enacted e-waste-specific policies and legislations. However, the report also says that countries with national e-waste management laws do not always enforce the law. Many countries lack measureable collection and recycling targets that are essential for effective policies.

The assessment also reports that 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. It 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.

ITU recommends that circular economy models be adopted to encourage closing the loop of materials through better design of components, recycling, reusing, etc., while mitigating the environmental pollution.

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. This partnership further aims to map recycling opportunities from e-waste, pollutants and e-waste related health effects, along with building national and regional capacities to help countries produce reliable and comparable e-waste statistics that can identify best practices of global e-waste management.

ITU Secretary-General, Houlin Zhao said, “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. 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."

"With 53.6 per cent of global households now having Internet access, information and communications technologies are improving peoples' lives and empowering them to enhance their social and economic well-being," said Brahima Sanou, Director of the ITU Telecommunication Development Bureau. "The Global E-Waste Monitor represents an important step in identifying solutions for e-waste.  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."

"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. "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."

While Antonis Mavropoulos, President of the International Solid Waste association (ISWA), commented, "We live in a time of transition to a more digital world, where automation, sensors and artificial intelligence are transforming industry and society," "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." 

Access the complete report here.