The World's E-Waste Has Reached a Crisis Point


The phone or computer you’re reading this on may not be long for this world. Maybe you’ll drop it in water, or your dog will make a chew toy of it, or it’ll reach obsolescence. If you can’t repair it and have to discard it, the device will become e-waste, joining an alarmingly large mountain of defunct TVs, refrigerators, washing machines, cameras, routers, electric toothbrushes, headphones. This is “electrical and electronic equipment,” aka EEE—anything with a plug or battery. It’s increasingly out of control.

As economies develop and the consumerist lifestyle spreads around the world, e-waste has turned into a full-blown environmental crisis. People living in high-income countries own, on average, 109 EEE devices per capita, while those in low-income nations have just four. A new UN report finds that in 2022, humanity churned out 137 billion pounds of e-waste—more than 17 pounds for every person on Earth—and recycled less than a quarter of it.

That also represents about $62 billion worth of recoverable materials, like iron, copper, and gold, hitting e-waste landfills each year. At this pace, e-waste will grow by 33 percent by 2030, while the recycling rate could decline to 20 percent. (You can see this growth in the graph below: purple is EEE on the market, black is e-waste, and green is what gets recycled.)

Graph displaying ewaste generation

Courtesy of UN Global E-waste Statistics Partnership

“What was really alarming to me is that the speed at which this is growing is much quicker than the speed that e-waste is properly collected and recycled,” says Kees Baldé, a senior scientific specialist at the United Nations Institute for Training and Research and lead author of the report. “We just consume way too much and we dispose of things way too quickly. We buy things that we may not even need, because it’s just very cheap. And also these products are not designed to be repaired.”

Humanity has to quickly bump up those recycling rates, the report stresses. In the first pie chart below, you can see the significant amount of metals we could be saving, mostly iron (chemical symbol Fe, in light gray), along with aluminum (Al, in dark gray), copper (Cu), and nickel (Ni). Other EEE metals include zinc, tin, and antimony. Overall, the report found that in 2022, generated e-waste contained 68 billion pounds of metal.

Graphs displaying recoverable and nonrecoverable metals in ewaste

Courtesy of UN Global E-waste Statistics Partnership



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