E-waste – what we need to do to monitor and manage it – report

e-waste EEE
Photo by RYosha/Bigstock.com

Electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) such as mobile phones and computers have helped improve lives for billions of people across the world.

But the way we produce, consume and dispose of our EEE has become unsustainable.

The third edition of The Global E-Waste Monitor 2020 launched recently by the Global E-waste Statistics Partnership (GESP), provides comprehensive insight for leaders to address the global e-waste challenge.

The Global E-waste Monitor is a collaborative effort between the Germany-based Sustainable Cycles (SCYCLE) Program currently co-hosted by the United Nations University (UNU) and the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR), the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), and the International Solid Waste Association (ISWA).

The report calls for decision-makers to adopt an internationally recognised methodological framework to measure and monitor e-waste, also commonly known as Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE). Monitoring the quantities and flows of e-waste is important to assess developments over time, and to set and evaluate targets. The report further stimulates the ongoing efforts to tackle the e-waste challenge and drive resource recovery policies and activities towards a sustainable society and circular economy.

Discarded mobile phones are one of the fastest growing e-waste streams and can contain high levels of valuable materials.

The report reveals a 21% increase in the global generation of e-waste since 2014, fuelled by higher EEE consumption rates (growing 3% annually), shorter lifecycles and limited repair options.

Here are some key takeaways from the new report that emphasise why quantifying e-waste should be a priority for countries around the globe.

Formal collection and recycling activities are not keeping pace with the global growth of e-waste.

In 2019, only 9.3 Mt (17.4%) of e-waste was officially documented as formally collected and recycled.

There is uncertainty over the fate of the other 44.3 Mt (82.6%) of e-waste generated in 2019, which if dumped, traded or recycled under substandard conditions, will have varying environmental impacts around the world.

In 2018, the highest policy-making body of the ITU, the Plenipotentiary Conference, established a target to increase the global e-waste recycling rate to 30% by 2023. The formal collection and recycling rate would have to increase at a much faster pace in order to hit that target.

The amount of e-waste formally collected and recycled per year increased by 1.8 Mt from 2014 to 2019, while e-waste generated increased by 9.2 Mt over the same time. This suggests that current collection and recycling methods are not keeping pace with global e-waste growth.

Increasingly countries are adopting national e-waste policy, legislation or regulation

The number of countries that have adopted a national e-waste policy, legislation or regulation has increased from 61 to 78 between 2014 and 2019. In many regions however, regulatory advances are slow, enforcement is low, and the collection and proper e-waste management is poor.

ITU Member States also set a target to raise the percentage of countries with an e-waste legislation to 50% – or 97 countries – by 2023. ITU provides a program dedicated to e-waste policy and regulatory development, where Member States can request ITU technical assistance and capacity building support.

It is essential to improve the rate of global e-waste collection and recycling through policy support as continued e-waste growth is expected.

E-waste can negatively impact human health and the environment if not managed in an environmentally sound manner

In many countries, infrastructure for e-waste management is not fully established. In other countries, it is completely absent. This often leaves e-waste to be managed by the informal sector.

Toxic and hazardous substances such as mercury, brominated flame-retardants (BFR) or chloroflurocarbons (CFCs) are found in many types of electronic equipment and pose severe risk to human health and the environment if not handled in an environmentally sound manner.

The report highlights that 50 tonnes of mercury and 71 kilo tonnes of BFR plastics are likely to be found in undocumented e-waste flows, which pose harm to workers’ health and the environment if released.

For the first time, the Global E-waste Monitor 2020 considers the global warming effect from the improper management of undocumented waste fridges and air-conditioners as they can contain potent greenhouse gas refrigerants. An estimated 98 Mt of carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e) is released to the atmosphere in 2019 due to incorrect disposal measures – this is approximately 0.3% of global energy-related emissions in 2019!

E-waste provides an opportunity to adopt a circular economy through discarded equipment and high-value materials

Numerous valuable materials such as gold and palladium can be found in e-waste — and if reused and recycled, can promote a circular economy through secondary material use.

A potential raw material value of US$ 57 billion could have been extracted from e-waste generated in 2019, particularly through iron, copper and gold.

The use of recycled iron, aluminium, and copper contributed to a reduction in emissions equivalent to 15 Mt of carbon dioxide in 2019, as compared to their use as virgin raw materials. Going forward, it will be important to reduce virgin material use and increase material recovery in a more circular and sustainable way.

Related article: Switzerland is winning the battle against e-waste, how?

Written by Rosie McDonald, E-waste Consultant and first published at ITU News

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