December 14, 2017

Why measuring e-waste is now an urgent priority

By ITU News

More and more people are joining the global information society and benefiting from the many opportunities it has to offer. This means electronic waste is increasing.

In 2016 alone, the world generated 44.7 million metric tonnes (Mt) of e-waste – that’s about nine Great Pyramids of Giza in mass! And experts foresee an annual growth rate of 3 to 4%, according to the Global E-Waste Monitor 2017, launched this week by ITU, United Nations University (UNU) and the International Solid Waste Association (ISWA).

These trends are due to increasing disposable incomes in many developing countries, and shorter replacement cycles for mobile phones, computers, and other devices. Many people own more than one information and communication technology (ICT) device.

The Global E-Waste Monitor 2017 highlights the lack of current measurement of much of the world’s e-waste — and demonstrates the importance of better data and information to manage the growing problem.

The report shows that there does not have to be a downside to progress. With better information and smart planning and management, we can turn the risks of e-waste into success stories for development — safeguarding global health and the environment while encouraging responsible production and consumption, economic growth, and decent employment.

Below are some top takeaways from the report that highlight why measuring e-waste is now an urgent priority — and how more countries are taking legislative action to address the issue.

1. Most global e-waste is not properly measured or managed

In 2016, only 20 per cent of e-waste was recycled through appropriate channels; of the remaining 80%, 4% of e-waste is known to have been thrown into landfills; and the fate of 76% of e-waste is unknown: it is likely to have been dumped, traded, or recycled under inferior conditions — or ends up in people’s drawers.

Most countries lack reliable e-waste data. Only 41 countries have official e-waste statistics. Often, merely anecdotal evidence is available on the production, management, and recycling of e-waste.

2. E-waste brings environmental and health risks

Hazardous materials such as mercury, lead, cadmium and flame retardants are found in phones, laptops, fridges, sensors, TVs and other electronic equipment. Burning, melting or directly dumping this equipment poses considerable environmental and health risks, as the pollutants leach into the air, soil, or water.

It is encouraging that approximately 4.8 billion people or 66% of the world’s population are now covered by e-waste legislation.

Furthermore, many workers in e-waste disposal and recycling jobs are not protected by formal regulation, and recycle electronics without the proper protection.

But there’s good news.

3. E-waste legislation has increased globally

It is encouraging that approximately 4.8 billion people or 66% of the world’s population are now covered by e-waste legislation.

That’s a large increase from just 44% in 2014.

However, more efforts must be made to enforce and implement e-waste policies, and to encourage more countries to develop them. In large parts of Africa, Caribbean, Central Asia, Eastern Asia and Melanesia, Polynesia, and Micronesia, national e-waste legislation is completely absent.

Limited data and laws on e-waste result in risks and missed opportunities for development in most countries.

4. E-waste contains high-value materials

Inadequately recycled electronic equipment also means that huge amounts of raw materials are wasted.

E-waste contains gold, silver, copper, platinum, palladium and other high value recoverable materials, such as iron and aluminium, which amounted to about 55 billion Euros last year. This is more than the Gross Domestic Product of most countries in the world.

In order to efficiently harvest these resources, it is necessary to adopt a ‘circular economy’ model, including keeping the value in products for as long as possible and eliminating waste.

5. Informed e-waste management can fast-track progress

With better data, policy makers and other stakeholders can evaluate e-waste developments over time, set and assess targets, and identify best policy practices.

This in turn can help to minimize e-waste generation, prevent illegal dumping and improper treatment of e-waste, promote recycling, and create jobs and economic growth in the refurbishment and recycling sector.

Evidence on the environmental and economic benefits of e-waste management will also help to make the case for the adoption of circular economy models and for the better design of products at the production stage, in order to enhance their durability and reuse. Better design will also allow for the safer and more efficient recovery of the valuable metals in electronic equipment.

Finally, more accurate and complete statistics on e-waste are necessary to measure the effectiveness of existing and new legislation to show any potential improvements in the future, and to guide business developments.

To address some of these challenges, UNU, ITU and ISWA joined forces and in January 2017 launched the Global Partnership for E-waste Statistics. Its objective is to help countries produce e-waste statistics and to build a global e-waste database to track developments over time.

The Partnership further aims to build national and regional capacities to help countries produce reliable and comparable e-waste statistics that can identify best practices of global e-waste management.

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ITU is the United Nations' specialized agency for information and communication technology. Any opinions expressed and statistics presented by third parties do not necessarily reflect the views of ITU.

Why measuring e-waste is now an urgent priority

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