E-waste is an extremely important issue that needs to be faced as consumers ditch their old electronics at staggering rates. Last year is evidence to prove it.
In 2019, humanity set a new record for the amount of e-waste generated in a year. A whopping 53.6 million metric tons of old computers, phones, appliances, and other gadgets were discarded.
According to an international report from The Global E-Waste Statistics Partnership (GESP), that’s a 21 percent increase since 2014.
The biggest issue with e-waste is that discarded electronics contain a number of toxic components. Everything from mercury to lead to cadmium can be found in things like old smartphones and other electronic devices. When these gadgets decompose, the toxic materials leech into the surrounding environment—including the water and soil.
Mercury, for one, is particularly concerning. It is a neurotoxin that can impair the cognitive development of children and negatively affect the brain. Scientists estimate that last year’s e-waste alone contains 50 tons of mercury.
When e-waste is properly disposed of or recycled it is less problematic. However, only 17 percent of the e-waste produced in 2019 was officially recycled. The rest of it went to a landfill, was incinerated, or disappeared from tracking records.
Ironically, the researchers believed that the report would show global progress being made with how humanity deals with its e-waste. They got the complete opposite instead.
One of the authors, Ruediger Kuehr, says, “We are at the start of a kind of explosion due to increased electrification we see everywhere.”
“It starts with toys, if you look at what is happening around Christmas, everything comes with a battery or plug. And it goes on with the mobile phones, with TV sets, and computers,” he adds.
Kuehr and his team worked with a variety of organizations to produce the global report—the third since 2014—including the International Telecommunication Union, the International Solid Waste Association, the United Nations Environment Programme, the World Health Organization, and the German Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development.
Breaking it Down
It’s not easy to imagine more than 53 million metric tons of e-waste. To put it in perspective, the junk weighs more than every adult in Europe combined.
The researchers found that small electronics made up the majority of 2019’s e-waste, accounting for about 32 percent. This includes things like video cameras, electronic toys, small appliances, and smart home gear.
Large devices and appliances like refrigerators and copy machines were the second-largest category at 24 percent. Notably, this also includes solar panels. As of now, discarded solar gear isn’t a major issue, but it will become more problematic as people upgrade their current setups in the coming years.
Making up 13 percent of the waste was screens and monitors. Meanwhile, small IT and telecommunications gear like smartphones came in at just over nine percent.
The report found that Asia created the most e-waste last year. That shouldn’t be surprising considering its dense population and the fact that it is the largest continent. Interestingly, Europe had the highest rate of e-waste per capita. It threw out nearly three times as much e-waste as Asia on a per capita basis. That being said, Europe also had the highest collection and recycling rates.
Many people wonder why there isn’t more being done about e-waste if it is so problematic for the environment. Believe it or not, a massive 71 percent of the world’s population lived with some form of national e-waste policy or regulation in October 2019. That’s troubling news considering the amount of unrecycled e-waste last year.
Mijke Hertoghs, head of the environment & emergency telecommunications division at the International Telecommunication Union, says, “If you look at the very extreme low percentage of recycled e-waste, it is a sign that although these policies and legislation are in place, it doesn’t do so much.”
Her comments highlight the fact that governments know about the e-waste problem and simply aren’t doing enough about it. That being said, there is a clear need for stronger enforcement of existing policies. New legislation won’t fix the issue unless current measures are enforced.
There is no time to waste.
Scott Cassel, founder of the nonprofit Product Stewardship Institute says, “Electronic companies do a great job of designing for pleasure and efficiency, but the rapid change in consumer demand also means that they’re designing for obsolescence. So today’s newest, coolest product becomes tomorrow’s junk.”
Researchers fear that e-waste levels in 2030 will almost double those of 2014. If that prediction comes true, humanity will ditch nearly 75 million metric tons of toxic waste annually by the next decade.
“It’s not only that our oceans are filling with plastic. But our land is filling with electronic waste,” Cassel says.
Moving Forward Together
The stats outlined in the GESP report are concerning. Fortunately, it’s not too late to start reversing the damage. Of course, doing so will require a united global effort.
Considering the fact that electronic devices are sold and thrown away all over the world, managing e-waste also needs to be done globally.
Reaching a point where the majority of e-waste is recycled won’t be easy. Current collection systems haven’t scaled equally to demand for electronics or the rate at which they are thrown away. Likewise, modern recycling methods simply aren’t able to process the staggering amount of e-waste being generated every day. Those are two areas that need to be addressed before humans can get serious about tackling the e-waste dilemma.
Of course, it’s possible to help out in other ways. For one, don’t throw out your old devices if they still work. Consider reselling or donating them instead of sending them to the landfill. If they don’t work, try to find a local e-waste recycling center.
Only with a combined effort can humanity get the e-waste problem under control—and, yes, that also includes stronger efforts by tech companies and electronics manufacturers.