Emerging Trends
October 14, 2019

How ITU is meeting the global e-waste challenge

Houlin Zhao, ITU Secretary-General

Since becoming ITU Secretary-General in 2014, I have upgraded my mobile phone three times – and every time, the old mobile was recycled or donated to charity for further use. But sadly, this is not the case for every mobile phone around the world.

While technology is a force for good, we must be ready to face the challenges that the rapidly advancing pace of today’s technology brings. This includes the growing global issue of e-waste.

E-waste: a challenge and opportunity

E-waste includes discarded household or business items that have electronic or circuitry components with a power or battery supply. This includes mobile phones, printers, computers, televisions – even irons and kettles are considered e-waste products.

Approximately 50 million metric tonnes (Mt) of e-waste are produced worldwide every year, but only 20 percent of this e-waste is recycled. The rest ends up in landfill, burned or illegally traded, or languishes forgotten in homes around the world. A recent study found that there are an estimated 40 million electronic devices sitting unused in homes across the UK alone.

E-waste contains substances – such as mercury, cadium and lead – that can be hazardous to human health and the environment if they are not dealt with properly.

But e-waste also presents significant opportunities.

Addressing e-waste supports the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals, playing a big contribution to addressing SDG 3, 8, 9, 11, 12 and 13.

This year, ITU partnered with WEEE Forum to mark International E-Waste Day to spread the word on the importance of recycling and properly disposing of e-waste. Strong partnerships are key to achieving this future.

If treated properly through recycling chains and appropriate disposal methods, e-waste could be worth USD62.5 billion per year, and create millions of new ‘clean and green’ jobs.

Recycling e-waste can also reduce the pressure on high-value and increasingly limited natural resources, namely gold, platinum and cobalt. This has the bonus effect of reducing carbon dioxide emissions as compared to raw resource extraction.

Solving the issue together

Collaboration among academia, small- and medium-sized enterprises, entrepreneurs, civil society and multinational companies can help to create a circular economy for technology whereby the environmental and health risks are reduced while creating decent work for millions of people globally.

At an industry level, companies can establish responsible supply chain management, including ethical device disposal and educating consumers about the importance of appropriately recycling or disposing of their old ICT equipment.

Legislation at a national level also plays a critical role in addressing the e-waste challenge. In Switzerland, for example, electronic retailers are legally required to accept consumer e-waste and send it to appropriate disposal facilities throughout the country.

Technology consumers also play a big role in reducing e-waste. Some strategies to consider include:

  • Repairing ICT equipment rather than replacing it;
  • Wait to upgrade or exchange functional smartphones for the latest model;
  • Recycle ICT equipment at certified points or with disposal firms;
  • Resell ICT equipment to give it a ‘second life’.
How ITU is contributing to e-waste reduction

In 2017, just 20 percent of e-waste was recycled and only 67 countries had developed e-waste legislation.

ITU’s flagship Connect 2030 Agenda – which was agreed to by all Member States – commits to reduce the volume of redundant e-waste by 50 percent.

At the 2018 Plenipotentiary Conference, Member States set a global e-waste target for 2023 to increase global e-waste recycling to 30 percent and committed to raise the number of countries with e-waste legislation to 50 percent.

ITU’s green ICT standards help reduce the amount of e-waste through, for example, our environmentally friendly standards for power adapters, or the principles we identified for eco-design of laptop chargers to increase their lifetime and reduce disposal. ITU’s Standardization Bureau, ITU-T, Study Group 5 (SG5) is also actively working to develop international standards (i.e. ITU-T Recommendations) that support the transition to a circular economy. In addition, ITU-T SG5 maintains a global portal on e-waste which contains a wealth of resources related to the sustainable management of e-waste and circular economy.

This year, ITU partnered with WEEE Forum to mark International E-Waste Day to spread the word on the importance of recycling and properly disposing of e-waste.

Strong partnerships are key to achieving this future. ITU is a member of the UN E-waste Coalition, Solve the E-waste Problem (StEP), and a founding member of the Global E-waste Statistics Partnership which has launched a new open source portal to visualize global e-waste data and statistics, both by region and by country. The portal can be accessed at globalewaste.org.

Together, I am confident we can develop a new circular vision for electronics that benefits the industry and workers, as well as the health of people and of our environment.

ITU initiated a project with the Global Environment Facility (GEF) to strengthen national and regional cooperation for the environmentally sound management of e-waste in Latin American. The project involves the development of two case studies based on Argentina and Costa Rica’s experiences in managing e-waste, and organizing national and regional events that support the implementation of e-waste management system.

We must also look at the problem in larger global context of environment and climate change. ITU’s Green Standards Week (GSW) is a global platform where policymakers, city planners, regulators, standards experts and others come together to discuss ICT’s role in supporting the growth and development of smart sustainable cities and unlocking the potential of the circular economy.

At the 9th GSW, which was held in Valencia, Spain, from 1 – 4 October 2019, panelists discussed the ways in which frontier technologies can accelerate circular actions particularly in cities. A Call to Action was adopted to emphasize the powerful role that digital innovation can play in e-waste reduction and enabling a circular economy to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

Together, I am confident we can develop a new circular vision for electronics that benefits the industry and workers, as well as the health of people and of our environment.

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How ITU is meeting the global e-waste challenge

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