When it comes to consumer electronics, their increasingly shortened lifecycles and our limited repair options are leaving a big, very literal mark: Nearly 63 million tons just in 2021 alone, according to a new assessment from WEEE Forum, the leading group dedicated to solving the planet’s growing e-waste problem. E-waste is a category that includes old computers and TVs, discarded iPhones, broken smart objects, and other types of electronic consumer waste.
The group says if its 2021 estimate proves correct, this year’s “mountain” of e-waste will set an alarming new milestone—it will outweigh Earth’s largest human-made object, the Great Wall of China. Beyond being an absolutely enormous pile of non-biodegradable trash, WEEE Forum points outs this heap of electronics is incredibly valuable. A 2019 report by the World Economic Forum guessed global e-waste is worth about $62.5 billion annually, more than many nations’ GPDs.
In its report, WEEE Forum director Pascal Leroy presses manufacturers to acknowledge their role in this problem, citing electronics’ shrinking lifespans and the fight these companies are waging against consumers’ right to repair. The waste is hard to fathom, from multiple angles: A ton of discarded mobile phones now contains more gold than a ton of gold ore, UN Sustainable Cycles Program director Ruediger Kuehr tells WEEE Forum. Which means that, technically, mining iPhones should now be more lucrative than extracting actual gold nuggets from the rocks in a mine. And unless we reduce their use, we’re at risk in the next century of running out of several other elements used as smartphone materials—some random chemicals like gallium, arsenic, silver, indium, yttrium, and tantalum.
In summary, WEEE Forum says the amount of e-waste we generate grows by another 2 million tons each year, but the amount that ever gets collected for recycling is stuck at less than 20%.