E-waste Growth Impacts The Planet’s Health

eWasteApproximately 41.8 million metric tonnes of electronic waste, or e-waste, was discarded in 2014, according to a new UN report.  When broken down, about 60 percent of the global e-waste stream included kitchen, laundry, and bathroom equipment.  Remarkably, computers, mobiles and printers only made up seven percent of the discarded waste.  Only one-sixth of this waste was either properly recycled or reused.

Here is a breakdown:

  • 12.8 million tonnes of small equipment (such as vacuum cleaners, microwaves, toasters, electric shavers and video cameras);
  • 11.8 million tonnes of large equipment (including washing machines, clothes dryers, dishwashers, electric stoves, and photovoltaic panels);
  • 7.0 million tonnes of temperature-exchange (cooling and freezing equipment);
  • 6.3 million tonnes of screens;
  • 3.0 million tonnes of small ICT equipment; and
  • 1.0 million tonne of lamps.

Last year’s e-waste stream also contained US$52 billion in mineral resources, such as iron, copper, gold, silver, aluminum, palladium plastic; most of which was never recovered.  Harmful toxins were also thrown away with the electronics, including lead glass, mercury, cadmium, chromium and 4,400 tonnes of ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbon, which can cause a variety of health problems, ranging from cancer to mental illness.

The report also breaks down e-waste streams by country and region.  Asia generates the most e-waste, while Oceania generated the least amount.  China is one of the world’s largest producers, consumers and exporters of electronics and importers of e-waste.  The highest per inhabitant to generate e-waste was Europe (including Russia) and the lowest per inhabitant was Africa.

The UN blames the rising costs and shortened life cycles of many everyday electronics on the e-waste crisis.

“Worldwide, e-waste constitutes a valuable ‘urban mine’ — a large potential reservoir of recyclable materials. At the same time, the hazardous content of e-waste constitutes a ‘toxic mine’ that must be managed with extreme care,” says UN Under-Secretary-General David Malone, Rector of the United Nations University.

“The monitor provides a baseline for national policymakers, producers and the recycling industry, to plan take-back systems. It can also facilitate cooperation around controlling illegal trade, supporting necessary technology development and transfer, and assisting international organizations, governments and research institutes in their efforts as they develop appropriate countermeasures. This will eventually lead to improved resource efficiency while reducing the environmental and health impacts of e-waste.”

More information can be found in the UN report The Global E-waste Monitor 2014: Quantities, Flows and Resources.  The Sustainable Cycles group produced a more specific report on China called E-Waste in China: A Country Report.

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