Each year, people around the world buy more and more electronics—from smartphones and computers to refrigerators and air conditioners—and each year, more and more electronics get thrown away. In 2019, the world generated 53.6 million metric tonnes of e-waste, a record high and an increase of more than 20% compared to five years prior. Without proper recycling infrastructure and the option to repair electronics, e-waste will only increase, and in fact it’s currently the world’s fastest-growing domestic waste stream.
This data comes from the Global E-Waste Monitor 2020, a new report out of the United Nations, the International Telecommunication Union, and the International Solid Waste Association. It’s the third iteration of such a global e-waste report and part of an effort to quantify the amount of e-waste generated by every country and the gaps when it comes to properly discarding electronics and reusing some of their materials.
That 53.6 million tonnes of e-waste is equivalent to the weight of 350 cruise ships the size of the Queen Mary 2, per the report, and 21% higher than the global e-waste output five years ago. Of all the e-waste generated globally in 2019, only 17.4% was collected and recycled, per the report. “What is most concerning is not only the quantity of e-waste that is arising, but also the fact that recycling technologies are not keeping pace with the growing amount of e-waste,” says Vanessa Forti, a program associate with United Nations University and a lead author of the report. “That is the key message: the recycling needs to improve.”
Across the world, many places lack the recycling infrastructure necessary to handle this kind of waste, especially because it can be both laborious and costly to recycle certain electronics. In Africa and Asia, waste pickers often dismantle electronics themselves, but that practice can be hazardous to both their health and the environment. They also only pick the most profitable electronics to handle, leaving the rest in the trash. “For most e-waste,” Forti says, “the economic gain for recyclers at the end is very little. They really need support from the government in order to do the recycling.”
Recycling needs to be the focus, she says, because it’s difficult to address e-waste at the source; people will always want to buy new electronics. New electronic devices also tend to have somewhat short lifespans and aren’t able to be repaired, which contributes to the surge in e-waste. It can be tricky to understand what products make up the bulk of this waste, because, for example, refrigerators weigh more than laptops, so the share of waste fridges accounted for is increasing faster than lighter products such as monitors and computers.
Not recycling e-waste, or not recycling it properly, means that the toxic components of electronics aren’t handled correctly, and also that carbon is being released into the atmosphere. Refrigerants used in “temperature exchange electronics” such as fridges and air conditioners are greenhouse gases. The report estimates that in 2019, improperly discarded fridges and air conditioners released a total of 98 million tonnes of CO2 equivalents into the atmosphere. That accounts for 0.3% of all greenhouse gases released in 2019, just from those items alone. The small amount of e-waste that was recycled in 2019 prevented the emission of 15 million tons of CO2.
“If we cannot recycle electronic waste, we’re also not taking back materials into the loop, which means we have to extract new raw materials,” Forti says. With every electronic device that is not recycled, materials including gold, silver, and platinum are not recovered—a monetary loss valued at $57 billion, and a hit to the environment as they sit unused while new materials are mined and extracted.
Countries have started to adopt national e-waste policies, but currently only 78 have some legislation or regulation in place. Without more global action, experts predict that in 2030, the world will generate more than 74 million metric tonnes of e-waste.