UN: Our E-Waste Problem Is Getting Out of Control

The planet generated 62M tons of it in 2022
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Mar 20, 2024 1:00 PM CDT
UN: Our E-Waste Problem Is Getting Out of Hand
In this photo taken Monday, Aug. 18, 2014, a worker gathers handfuls of cellphone printed circuit boards from a pile to put in a sack for recycling, at the East African Compliant Recycling facility in Machakos, near Nairobi, in Kenya.   (AP Photo/Ben Curtis, File)

UN agencies have warned that electrical and electronic waste is piling up worldwide while recycling rates remain low and are likely to fall even further. In a new report released Wednesday, the UN's International Telecommunications Union and research arm UNITAR said some 62 million tons of "e-waste"—meaning any discarded device with a plug or battery, including cellphones, electronic cars and toys, TVs, e-cigarettes, laptop computers, and solar panels—was generated in 2022. Per a press release, that's enough to fill 155 million tractor-trailers that could be lined up bumper to bumper around the globe. It's on track to reach 82 million tons by 2030. Specifics, per the AP:

  • Its composition: Metals—including copper, gold, and iron—made up half of the 62 million tons, worth a total of some $91 billion, the report said. Plastics accounted for 17 million tons, and the remaining 14 million tons include substances like composite materials and glass. Some of the discarded electronic devices contained hazardous elements like mercury, as well as rare earth metals coveted by tech industry manufacturers. Currently, only 1% of the demand for the 17 minerals that make up the rare metals is met through recycling.
  • Recycling isn't keeping pace: The UN says just over 22% of the e-waste mass was properly collected and recycled in 2022. That figure is expected to decline to 20% by the end of the decade because of the "staggering growth" of such waste due to higher consumption, limited repair options, shorter product life cycles, growing "electronification" of society, and inadequate e-waste management infrastructure.
  • The problem by region: About half of all e-waste is generated in Asia, where few countries have laws on e-waste or collection targets. Recycling and collection rates top 40% in Europe, where per-capita waste generation is highest: nearly 39 pounds. In Africa, which generates the least of any of the five big global regions, recycling and collection rates hover at about 1%.
  • A prediction: Per the press release, if countries could up their e-waste collection and recycling rates to 60% by 2030, the benefits—including those gained by minimizing human health risks—would exceed costs by more than $38 billion.
(More e-waste stories.)

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