/ 22 March 2024

E-waste is being generated five times faster than it is being recycled

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Discarded solar panel components below a power transmission line at the Gioto dumping site in Nakuru, Kenya. The rising production of solar panels is expected to contribute to a surge in electronic waste. (Photo by James Wakibia/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Mountains of electronic waste, from discarded computers to dumped phones, is piling up worldwide, United Nations agencies have warned.

The world’s generation of e-waste is rising five times faster than documented e-waste recycling, a new report released by the International Telecommunications Union and the United Nations Institute for Training and Research, has found.

E-waste is any discarded product with a plug or a battery and is a health and environmental hazard because it contains toxic substances such as mercury, which can damage the human brain and coordination system.

The 62 million tonnes of e-waste generated in 2022 would fill 1.55 million 40 tonne trucks — “roughly enough trucks to form a bumper to bumper line encircling the equator” — according to the report.

Worldwide, the annual generation of e-waste is surging by 2.6 million tonnes annually and is on track to reach 82 million tonnes by 2030, which a 33% increase from the 2022 figure.

The e-waste generated in 2022 contained 31 billion kilogrammes of metals, 17 billion kilogrammes of plastics and 14 billion kilogrammes of other materials such as minerals and glass. 

An estimated 19 billion kilogrammes of e-waste, mainly from metals like iron, which is present in high quantities and has high recycling rates in almost all e-waste management routes, were turned into secondary resources. 

For 2022, only 22% of e-waste mass was documented as having been properly collected and recycled, “leaving up to $62 billion worth of recoverable natural resources unaccounted for and increasing pollution risks to communities worldwide”. 

The report’s authors, too, predict a drop in the documented collection and recycling rate to just 20% by 2030. This is because of the widening difference in recycling efforts relative to the “staggering growth” of e-waste generation. The reasons include technological progress, higher consumption, limited repair options, shorter product life cycles, society’s growing electronification, design shortcomings and inadequate e-waste management infrastructure.

Struggling to recycle

African countries generate the lowest rates of e-waste but struggle to recycle it; their recycling rates are below 1%, the report noted.

Many people own and use multiple electronic devices, and the increasing interconnectivity of urban and remote areas has led to a rise in the number of devices and objects linked to the internet, the report said.

“These include the usual computers and phones, but also a growing list of objects such as household appliances, e-bikes and e-scooters, health monitors, environmental sensors, electronics embedded in furniture and clothes, more and more toys and tools, and energy-saving equipment such as LEDs, photovoltaics and heat pumps,” with this growth seeing a “concomitant surge” in the amount of e-waste. 

Most e-waste is managed outside formal collection and recycling schemes. Non-compliant e-waste management means that 58 000 kilogrammes of mercury and 45 million kilogrammes of plastics containing brominated flame retardants are released into the environment every year. “This has a direct and severe effect on the environment and people’s health.”

When e-waste is treated using inferior activities, it can release as many as 1 000 chemical substances into the environment, including harmful neurotoxicants such as lead,  according to the World Health Organisation. Every year, millions of tonnes of e-waste are recycled using environmentally unsound techniques and are probably stored in homes and warehouses, dumped, exported or recycled under inferior conditions. Pregnant women and children are particularly vulnerable because of their unique pathways of exposure and their developmental status.”

The UN report said that if countries could bring the e-waste collection and recycling rates to 60% by 2030, the benefits, including reduced human health risks, would exceed costs by more than $38 billion.

What else is in the waste?

About a third (20 billion kilogrammes) of the world’s e-waste takes the form of small equipment such as toys, microwave ovens, vacuum cleaners and e-cigarettes, “yet recycling rates for this category of equipment remain very low”, at only 12%. 

Another five billion kilogrammes of e-waste are made up of small IT and telecommunication equipment, which include laptops, cell phones, GPS devices and routers; only 22% is formally collected and recycled. Typically, collection and recycling rates are highest for heavier and bulkier equipment categories such as temperature exchange equipment, screens and monitors

Rare earth elements are crucial for future technologies including renewable energy generation and e-mobility. Yet recycling these elements is economically challenging, because the market price for rare earth elements is still too low to support larger-scale commercial recycling operations, the report notes. 

Repair, re-use

The growth rate of countries implementing e-waste policy, legislation or regulation is decelerating. In all, 81 countries have adopted e-waste policies, covering 72% of the global population.

Clear limitations remain in terms of environmentally sound recycling practices are restricted by low collection rates and limited recycling infrastructure in many parts of the world.  “To address this, greater investment in infrastructure development, more promotion of repair and reuse, capacity building, and measures to stop illegal shipments of e-waste are crucial.”

Although the import of e-waste into Africa is being monitored, it is difficult to control, with the research noting that three of Africa’s most active ports — Durban, Bizerte in Tunisia and Lagos in Nigeria are major ports of entry for used electrical and electronic equipment, “suggesting that e-waste shipments continue to circumvent the Basel and Bamako Conventions”. 

The report cited an increase in the intra-African movement of e-waste between countries such as South Africa, Nigeria and Tunisia and other countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. 

“Generally speaking, however, e-waste collection and treatment infrastructure is lacking across Central Africa, and in many countries the informal sector still dominates activities and processes many thousands of kilogrammes of e-waste each year.”

Only few countries in Southern Africa have formal take-back schemes, but specific e-waste collection points are made available in many countries by e-waste collection and recycling companies, such as the fledgling businesses operating in Botswana, Namibia and Zambia. “Where there are greater volumes of e-waste, medium- and large-scale collection and recycling operations exist (for example. in South Africa), with formal e-waste collection systems and the technical capability in some cases to extract precious metals.

“Like in East Africa, there has been increasing discussion of regional harmonisation in Southern Africa, driven chiefly by the perceived need to create economies of scale in the region, given the varied size of neighbouring economies and populations, and thus of the volumes of e-waste being generated in each country.”