The volume of e-waste is expected to rise to 50m Mt by 2018, according to a new report by the United Nations University (UNU), which says that in 2014 people worldwide discarded all but a small fraction of an estimated 41.8m metric tonnes (Mt) of electrical and electronic products.
The new figures were released in the Global E-Waste Monitor 2014, compiled by UNU, the UN’s think tank reveal insights into the location and composition of the world’s fast-growing e-waste problem.
Just 7% of e-waste last year was made up of mobile phones, calculators, personal computers, printers, and small information technology equipment.
Almost 60% was a mix of large and small equipment used in homes and businesses, consisting of:
- 12.8 million tonnes of small equipment (such as vacuum cleaners, microwaves, toasters, electric shavers and video cameras)
- 11.8 million tonnes of large equipment (including washing machines, clothes dryers, dishwashers, electric stoves, and photovoltaic panels)
- 7.0 million tonnes of temperature-exchange (cooling and freezing equipment)
- 6.3 million tonnes of screens
- 3.0 million tonnes of small ICT equipment
- 1.0 million tonne of lamps.
The 41.8 Mt weight of last year’s e-waste is comparable to that of 1.15m 40-ton 18-wheel trucks — enough to form a line of trucks 23,000 kilometres long, or the distance from New York to Tokyo and back.
UN Under-Secretary-General David Malone – “Worldwide, e-waste constitutes a valuable ‘urban mine’ — a large potential reservoir of recyclable materials. At the same time, the hazardous content of e-waste constitutes a ‘toxic mine’ that must be managed with extreme care”
Less than one-sixth of last year’s e-waste is thought to have been diverted to proper recycling and reuse, the UNU says.
The e-waste generated in 2014 contained an estimated 16,500 kilotons of iron, 1,900 kilotons of copper, 300 tonnes of gold (equal to 11% of the world’s total 2013 gold production), as well as silver, aluminum, palladium plastic and other resources with a combined estimated value of around £34bn.
Toxins in that e-waste, meanwhile, include 2.2 Mt of lead glass — more than six times the weight of the Empire State Building — 0.3 Mt of batteries, as well as mercury, cadmium, chromium and 4,400 tonnes of ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbon (CFCs). Health problems associated with such toxins include impaired mental development, cancer, and damage to liver and kidneys.
Who Produces What
The report found that the US and China produce the most e-waste overall (32% of the world’s total), the top per capita producers by far are the wealthy nations of northern and western Europe, the top five being Norway, Switzerland, Iceland, Denmark, and the UK.
The escalating global e-waste problem is driven by the rising sales and shortening life cycles of electrical and electronic equipment (EEE — essentially, any device with a battery or an electric cord), the UNU state.
UN Under-Secretary-General David Malone, Rector of UNU, said: “Worldwide, e-waste constitutes a valuable ‘urban mine’ — a large potential reservoir of recyclable materials. At the same time, the hazardous content of e-waste constitutes a ‘toxic mine’ that must be managed with extreme care.
“The monitor provides a baseline for national policymakers, producers and the recycling industry, to plan take-back systems. It can also facilitate cooperation around controlling illegal trade, supporting necessary technology development and transfer, and assisting international organisations, governments and research institutes in their efforts as they develop appropriate counter-measures.
This will eventually lead to improved resource efficiency while reducing the environmental and health impacts of e-waste.”
Co-author Kees Baldé of the United Nations University Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability (UNU-IAS) Sustainable Cycles (SCYCLE) operating unit in Bonn (Germany), said: “This report, based on empirical data, provides an unprecedented level of detail and a more accurate overview of the magnitude of the e-waste problem in different world regions than has ever been reported previously.”