With an annual growth rate of 3 to 4%, electronic waste (e-waste) is on its way to becoming the fastest-growing toxic waste stream in the world. Although there is no single, uniform definition of e-waste, it mainly refers to the disposal of electronic products that are either unwanted, not working, or at the end of their (useful) lifespan. In its broadest sense, there can be multiple sources constituting e-waste, ranging from household appliances, such as irons, ovens, and fridges to IT and telecommunications equipment, i.e., smartphones, computers and laptops, or from office and medical equipment to toys, leisure, and sports equipment. Inadequate treatment or inappropriate disposal of all these items pose considerable environmental and health risks, rising concerns over the air, water, and soil pollution, as well as information security.
The quantity consumed and the speed of discard for these items have increased rapidly in recent years. According to the UNU, by 2016, the world annually generated 44.7 million metric tons (Mt) of e-waste. This amount is equal in weight to almost 9 Great Pyramids of Giza, or to put it differently, 4500 Eiffel Towers. As a more depressing fact, only 20% of this amount was recycled through appropriate channels. By 2030, this volume is expected almost to double and exceed 74 Mt (Baldé et al., 2017). As global consumer demand and technological innovations continue to grow, such e-waste generation does not come as a surprise.
Why is e-waste growing at such a high pace? Consumers and manufacturers are the leading actors for this. The electronics industry is one of the fastest-growing industries today, comprising the world's largest market share. Every single day, new products and innovations are introduced into the market. With our increasing dependence on technology combined with downward trends in prices and planned obsolescence on electronics, it eventually becomes inevitable not to purchase new products and toss away the old ones.
Where does e-waste gets produced, and where does it land? Looking at the global route of e-waste dumping, India carries the flag as it is considered one of the largest generators. It is then followed by the USA, China, Japan, and Germany. India domestically generates around 3 Mt of e-waste, but there's another side to the story. It also imports a large share from the developed world - approx. 50,000 tonnes. Although there is currently neither a system for tracking legal (and illegal) waste shipment nor reliable e-waste data at the country level, studies show that developed countries send their obsolete electronics to developing countries, mostly in the name of donation, or working equipment, a trend known as the transboundary movement of e-waste. Thus, while the USA, EU, Japan, and South Korea constitute a larger share of e-waste source countries, India, Pakistan, Thailand, and Mexico are considered the main destination countries.
What are the main problems that come with this staggering volume of e-waste? First and foremost, e-waste management. With only 41 countries producing official e-waste statistics, the global volume of e-waste is unknown, making it very difficult to track its movement or even place global legislation to treat it as a separate waste. It is estimated that the fate of 44.3 Mt (approx. 82.6%) of e-waste generated in 2019 is not known. This amount is likely not formally documented or collected in an environmentally safe manner, meaning that it is probably mixed with other waste streams, such as plastic or metal waste. This lack of tracing implies that most of the e-waste is managed outside official collection systems and is indeed part of the transboundary movement, which leads up to a second, and a more critical issue.
When e-waste lands in developing countries, where waste management infrastructure is not yet fully established, it is mostly processed in informal sectors. This is due to the "urban mine" component of e-waste. When proper extraction processes are used, e-waste can generate large volumes of precious materials. It is estimated that, for every 1 million cell phones that are recycled, 34 kg of gold or 16.000 kg of copper can be recovered. Yet, in the informal sector, e-waste is usually handled using rudimentary techniques such as open burning of wires, manual stripping to remove electronic boards for resale, or even applying acid baths to extract copper, aluminum, and other materials. All these methods are usually performed without following any health and safety measures. When treated inadequately, the above techniques result in the release of hazardous chemicals in e-waste, leading to severe toxic exposure. Improper e-waste treatment also leads to environmental damage in terms of soil, air, and water contamination. Those who work at the recycling sites, who are frequently urban poor, women and children, hit the hardest. Studies show that the potential adverse health effects of exposure to e-waste substances may include changes in lung function, thyroid function, birth outcomes, childhood growth rates, and cognitive development. (Perkins et al., 2014).
E-waste is unavoidable in today's throw-away society and is increasingly becoming a global and a national issue. However, it also carries huge potential and opportunity for a circular economy. By improving e-waste tracking, collection, and recycling practices, countries could recover a considerable amount of secondary raw materials and manage their material demand sustainably, without leading to adverse health and environmental damage. This would increase resource not only conservation but also stimulate job creation and economic return.
Baldé, C. P., Forti, V., Gray, V., Kuehr, R., & Stegmann, P. (2017). The global e-waste monitor 2017: Quantities, flows and resources. United Nations University, International Telecommunication Union, and International Solid Waste Association.
Forti, V., Balde, C. P., Kuehr, R., & Bel, G. (2020). The Global E-waste Monitor 2020: Quantities, flows and the circular economy potential.
Perkins, D. N., Drisse, M. N. B., Nxele, T., & Sly, P. D. (2014). E-waste: a global hazard. Annals of global health, 80(4), 286-295.