E-waste quantities booming while recycling rates decline

E-waste is growing at an alarming rate - up 21 per cent in the last five years - yet only 17.4 per cent of 2019’s e-waste was collected and recycled.

With yearly new-release cycles for electronic products commonplace, consumers are encouraged to regularly upgrade their devices. Yet recycling rates are poor, even though many electronics contain rare earth metals and other materials which are limited in supply and in high demand.

A lot of the waste generated is disposed of through open burning, which poses significant risks to the environment and human health.

Open burning practices typically take place in developing countries where operators will try and extract key materials such as metals after less valuable resources such as plastic have been burned away.

The new research from the United Nations University (UNU) also predicts global e-waste, which is defined as discarded products with a battery or plug, will reach 74 million metric tonnes (Mt) by 2030, up from 53Mt in 2019.

This makes e-waste the world’s fastest-growing domestic waste stream, fuelled mainly by higher consumption rates of electric and electronic equipment, short life cycles and few options for repair.

In 2017, the UN said that 20 per cent of e-waste was being recycled, a higher proportion than today, but it actually underestimated the rise in e-waste, believing it would reach 52.2Mt by 2021 - a figure that has already been surpassed.

According to the report, Asia generated the greatest volume of e-waste in 2019 (24.9Mt), followed by the Americas (13.1Mt) and Europe (12Mt), while Africa and Oceania generated 2.9Mt and 0.7Mt respectively.

It also states that proper e-waste management can help mitigate global warming. In 2019, an estimated 98Mt of CO2-equivalents were released into the atmosphere from discarded fridges and air-conditioners, contributing roughly 0.3 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions

“The findings of this year’s UNU-affiliated Global E-waste Monitor suggest that humanity is not sufficiently implementing the Sustainable Development Goals,” said UN under-secretary General David M. Malone.

“Substantially greater efforts are urgently required to ensure smarter and more sustainable global production, consumption and disposal of electrical and electronic equipment. This report contributes mightily to the sense of urgency in turning around this dangerous global pattern.”

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