April 23, 2015

Global e-waste mountain costing economy $52bn a year

UN University report reveals almost 42 million tonnes of electronic and electrical equipment was thrown out last year

The majority of e-waste ends up at Agbogbloshie, the world’s biggest e-waste dumpsite, located close to Accra, Ghana

The dumping of a record amount of electronic and electrical equipment last year resulted in the global economy wasting around $52bn in materials that could have been profitably recovered and reused, the UN has found.

Research by the UN University (UNU) revealed 41.8 million tonnes of “e-waste” was jettisoned last year, with around 60 per cent made up of fridges, washing machines, and other domestic appliances. Mobile phones, calculators, personal computers and printers comprised around seven per cent of the total.

The waste mountain represents a marked increase on the 39.8 million tonnes thrown out in 2013, with rising sales and shortening life cycles of electrical and electronic equipment blamed for the creation of more and more e-waste. In the report, UNU warned that on present trends the 50 million tonnes mark could be reached by 2018. The problem is spread across the world, with Asia generating the largest amount of e-waste – 16 million tonnes in 2014 – but Europe leading the way on e-waste per capita. Each European created 15.6 kilograms of e-waste last year, compared to 15.2 kilograms in Oceania and 12.2 kilograms across the Americas.

Just a sixth of all the e-waste thrown out last year was recycled, resulting in huge amounts of useful materials being dumped in landfill. UNU said the e-waste generated in 2014 contained 300 tonnes of gold – equal to around 11 per cent of the world’s production in 2013 – along with 16,500 kilotons of iron, 1,900 kilotons of copper, as well as other valuable resources such as silver, aluminium, and palladium plastic.
In addition, the e-waste mountain contained a host of toxins, including 2.2 million tonnes of lead glass and 300,000 tonnes of batteries, along with mercury, cadmium, chromium and 4,400 tonnes of ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbon (CFCs). Toxins found in a-waste are known to seep into soils and water if left untreated, impacting biodiversity and human health in some parts of the world.

“Worldwide, e-waste constitutes a valuable ‘urban mine’ – a large potential reservoir of recyclable materials,” said UN Under-Secretary-General David Malone, rector of UNU. “At the same time, the hazardous content of e-waste constitutes a ‘toxic mine’ that must be managed with extreme care.” Resource shortages have been highlighted by industry and manufacturers as a key concern as supplies of key materials dwindle. In the UK, both the Labour and the Liberal Democrat manifestos have promised a ‘Stern Review for resources’ to address the problem. However, experts across the industry maintain not enough is being done to ensure the valuable materials found in electronic equipment are recycled and re-used.

Watch David Fedele’s film on e-waste in Ghana