The world's e-waste has reached crisis point

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The phone or computer you're reading this on won't be around for long. Perhaps you'll drop it in water, or your dog will make it a chew toy, or it'll simply reach obsolescence. If you can't repair it and have to discard it, the device will become e-waste, joining the dangerously large mountain of defunct TVs, refrigerators, washing machines, cameras, routers, electric toothbrushes, headphones. This is “Electrical and Electronic Equipment” aka EEE – anything with a plug or batteries. This is continuously getting out of control.

As economies grow and consumerist lifestyles spread around the world, e-waste has turned into a full-fledged environmental crisis. People living in high-income countries have an average of 109 EEE devices per capita, while those in low-income countries have only four. A new UN report finds that in 2022, humanity generated 137 billion pounds of e-waste – more than 17 pounds for every person on Earth – and less than a quarter of it was recycled.

It also represents approximately $62 billion worth of recoverable materials, such as iron, copper and gold, that end up in e-waste landfills each year. At this pace, e-waste will increase by 33 percent by 2030, while recycling rates could drop to 20 percent. (You can see this increase in the graph below: purple is marketable EEE, black is e-waste, and green is what is recycled.)

Graph showing waste generation

Courtesy of the United Nations Global E-Waste Statistics Partnership

“What's really worrying to me is that the speed at which it's growing far outstrips the pace of properly collecting and recycling e-waste,” says Kees Balde, a senior scientific expert at the United Nations Institute for Training and Research. It's fast.” and lead author of the report. “We consume too much, and we destroy things too quickly. We buy things we don't even need because they are so cheap. “And these products are not even designed for repair.”

The report emphasizes that humanity needs to increase those recycling rates quickly. In the first pie chart below, you can see the significant amounts of metals we can save, mostly iron (chemical symbol Fe, in light grey), aluminum (Al, in dark grey), copper ( Cu), and nickel. (Retd.). Other EEE metals include zinc, tin and antimony. Overall, the report found that e-waste generated in 2022 contained 68 billion pounds of metal.

Graphs displaying recoverable and non-recoverable metals in waste

Courtesy of the United Nations Global E-Waste Statistics Partnership