This year’s worldwide electronic waste will be a mountain of an estimated 57.4 million tonnes, a report by Global E-waste Monitor released on World E-Waste Day indicates.
The waste, which is said to be heavier than the weight of the Great Wall of China, Earth’s heaviest artificial object, has seen rapid accumulation over the Covid-19 pandemic period as people dumped obsolete devices and purchased new ones as the new normal pushed them to work from home.
Global E-waste Monitor’s data shows that an estimated 53.6 million metric tons electronic waste was generated in 2019, representing a 21 per cent jump in the five years since 2014.
What now concerns e-waste experts is the prediction that global e-waste will hit 74 million metric tonnes by 2030 as technological obsolescence coerces people to fill up landfills with waste.
The report further reveals that global e-waste generation is growing annually by 2 metric tonnes, or about 4 per cent, a problem attributed to higher consumption rates of electronics with shorter product lifecycles and limited repair options.
An emerging viewpoint of the e-waste issue is the ever rising world demand for data and digital services with the European Commission ICT Impact survey disclosing that “video on demand, movies, social media clips and game streaming take up close to 85 per cent of the bandwidth of data centres.”
According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), internet users have doubled since 2010, traffic has grown approximately 30 per cent annually, and by 2023 internet users worldwide will hit 5.3 billion or 66 per cent of the world’s population.
Mobile internet users are projected to increase from 3.8 billion in 2019 to 5 billion by 2025 while IoT-connected devices will double from 12 billion to 25 billion in the same period.
The expanding uses of cloud computing, 5G, Internet of Things, self-driving cars, blockchain, Artificial Intelligence, Augmented Reality, fintech, e-health and edtech will require an even higher number of servers in data centres.
Speaking during World E-waste Day on October 14, managing director of Nairobi based Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Centre Mr Boniface Mbithi called on world governments to show more commitment towards controlling the menace.
“It is not only an environmental problem but also a health issue. Most of the e-waste is handled improperly. We need to do more,” he told Nation.Africa.
Around the world, experts have called on households, businesses and governments to get behind efforts to get more dead or unused plug-in or battery-operated products to facilities where they can be either repaired or recycled.
According to estimates in Europe, where the problem is best studied, 11 of 72 electronic items in an average household are no longer in use or are broken.
Annually another 4 to 5 kg of unused electrical and electronic products per citizen are hoarded in Europe prior to being discarded.
When it comes to mobile phones, a French study estimates that 54 to 113 million mobile phones alone, weighing 10 to 20 tonnes, are sleeping in drawers and other storage spaces in French homes.
In the US, while many mobile phones are recycled, an estimated 151 million or more phones a year or approximately 416,000 a day are trashed and end up incinerated or landfilled, and that 40 per cent of heavy metals in US landfills come from discarded electronics.
By weight, discarded big appliances such as stoves and refrigerators constitute the largest component of e-waste.
These large appliances contain steel, copper and aluminium which makes them attractive to thieves. Despite concerted efforts by governments at many levels, this problem persists.
Even in the EU, which has had comprehensive Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) legislation in place for nearly two decades, consisting of targets and legal responsibilities, the EU’s formal e-waste collection rate is only 55 per cent.
Though progress has been made in the last 20 years, states still struggle to achieve the targets for many complex reasons, as documented by the Brussels-based WEEE Forum in a study report.
Pascal Leroy, director general of the WEEE Forum, the organisation behind International E-Waste Day said that many factors play a role in making the electrical and electronics sector resource efficient and circular.
“For example, our member producer responsibility organisations collected and secured responsible recycling of 2.8 per cent of e-waste in 2020. But one thing stands out: as long as citizens don’t return their used, broken gear, sell it, or donate it, we will need to continue mining all-new materials causing great environmental damage,” he said.
The WEEE Forum estimates that between 40 -50 per cent of e-waste is recycled, but only 17.4 per cent of that is properly treated and recycled.
In the case of cell phones, tablets, computers and other small information technology products, many factors are thought to discourage recycling, including data security, product value, difficult-to-reach return points, and uncertainty about appropriate recycling, among others.
Ruediger Kuehr, director of the Scycle Programme and head of the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) Office in Bonn says that a tonne of discarded mobile phones is more valuable than a tonne of gold ore.
“Embedded in 1 million cell phones, for example, are 24 kilos of gold, 16,000 kilos of copper, 350 kilos of silver, and 14 kilos of palladium, resources that could be recovered and returned to the production cycle. And if we fail to recycle these materials, new supplies need to be mined, harming the environment,” he warned.
High-value, recoverable materials conservatively valued at Sh6 trillion - a sum greater than the Gross Domestic Product of most countries – were mostly dumped or burned in those parts of the world without extended producer responsibility legislation rather than being collected for treatment and reuse.
Ahead of the Glasgow COP26 that will kick off at the end of this month, where world governments will discuss global action to reduce carbon emissions, it has been estimated that every tonne of WEEE recycled avoids around 2 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions.
“Moreover, the recovery of gold and other material from waste saves a lot of carbon dioxide emissions when compared with virgin metal mining,” says Kees Baldé, senior programme officer of the UN University’s Scycle Programme.
EU Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries Virginijus Sinkevičius says that to change the trend, governments should not think of it as waste, but rather wasted opportunity as longer-lasting products would be massive savings not just for consumers, but in precious raw materials and carbon dioxide emissions.
He said the commission is working on new eco-design requirements for electronic devices, to increase durability and make them easier to repair.
But successfully raising collection rates will require every actor to be involved in awareness, including consumers.
“Alongside convenience, financial compensation, care for the environment, culture and social norms, awareness is one of the key motivators for people to take action on e-waste,” says Magdalena Charytanowicz of the WEEE Forum in charge of International E-Waste Day.