Tag Archives: e waste

World’s electronic waste for 2021 could outweigh China’s Great Wall

There’s a growing amount of waste electronic and electrical equipment (WEEE) generated every year, and 2021 is no exception. An assessment by an international expert group says electronics waste will total an estimated 57.4 million tons, which is greater than the mass of the Great Wall of China, Earth’s heaviest artificial object. 

Image credit: Flickr / Nick Normal.

From 2014 to 2020, WEEE increased by nearly 21%, at a rate between 3% and 4% annually. In 2021, WEEE is slated to increase by nearly 7%, a rate of waste generation nearly double seen in just the last couple of years, and is now on a predicted course to reach 74 million tons by 2030, according to the WEEE forum. Even if we consider only the last couple of years as our baseline, global e-waste generation is growing annually by at least two million tons, a problem attributed to higher consumption of electronics and short product lifecycles. 

“As long as citizens don’t return their used, broken gear, sell it, or donate it, we will need to continue mining all-new materials causing great environmental damage,” Pascal Leroy, head of the WEEE Forum, said in a statement. “Many factors play a role in making the electrical and electronics sector resource efficient and circular.”

A growing problem

Mobile phones, fridges, televisions, electric toys and kettles are among the many items that are discarded every year and largely not recycled. It’s not only an environmental problem but also an economic one, as the world’s e-waste has a material value of $62.5 billion, more than the GDP of most countries, according to a 2019 report. 

About 11 of 72 electronic items in an average household are no longer in use or broken, according to estimates from Europe by WEEE forum, the region with the most information. EU citizens are even estimated to hoard four to five kilograms of unused electronics. In France, a study estimates 54 to 113 million mobile phones are gathering dust in storage spaces.

“E-waste is one of the fastest growing waste streams, in Europe and around the world. To change this trend we should not think of it as waste, but rather wasted opportunity as longer-lasting products would be massive savings not just for consumers, but in precious raw materials and CO2 emissions,” Virginijus Sinkevičius, EU Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries, said in a statement. 

We currently have a linear approach to manufacturing, ownership and disposal of electronic products. This means that after we buy it, the sole responsibility for the product is handed to us. In the best case, the product is recycled, but that’s not usually what happens. Instead, they most often than not end up in a landfill where they are treated like any other waste. 

Only 17.4% of the e-waste generated in 2019 was known to be properly treated and recycled – much lower than the 40-50% estimated by members of the public in surveys. In the case of phones, tablets, and computers, many factors discourage recycling, such as date security, product value, and difficult-to-reach return points. 

This model puts a high pressure on Earth’s finite resources and is unsustainable. That’s why environmental groups are asking for a transition to a circular economy, under which manufacturers would have responsibility for the end-of-life handling of the products they sell. Companies would have to manage any repairs or as a last resort recycle the components. 

“Each of us has a crucial role in making circularity a reality for e-products. This is more important than ever as our governments go into COP26 to discuss global action to reduce carbon emissions. Every ton of WEEE recycled avoids around 2 tons of CO2 emissions. If we all do the right thing with our e-waste we help to reduce harmful CO2 emissions,” said Leroy. 

The right to repair: Europe wants a revolution in how electronics are produced and repaired

It’s time to give that old TV or refrigerator a second opportunity, at least that’s what officials in the European Union (EU) believe. The bloc has introduced a new rule through which companies that sell some consumer electronic goods will need to ensure that those appliances can be repaired for up to 10 years – seeking to reduce the large amount of electronic waste that’s produced every year.

Image credit: Flickr / Curtis Palmer

The move is part of the EU’s Circular Economy Action Plan, with the objective of reducing the consumption footprint and doubling the circular material use rate. Instead of products that break down fast and can’t be reused, repaired, or recycled, green products will be the new norm across the member countries of the bloc.

“This is a really big step in the right direction” Daniel Affelt of the environmental group BUND-Berlin, which runs several “repair cafes” that helps people with repairs, told AP. “People want to repair their appliances. When you tell them that there are no spare parts for a device that’s only a couple of years old then they are obviously really frustrated by that.”

Under the new rules, manufacturers in the EU will have to make sure that the parts are available for up to ten years.

Some will only be given to professional repair companies so to ensure the parts are installed correctly. At the same time, new devices will have to include repair manuals and be made in a way that they can be dismantled with conventional tools.

Still, this only applies to washing machines, hairdryers, refrigerators, and TVs. Campaigners want the EU to also consider covering smartphones, laptops, and other consumer electronics. France is already a step ahead, as earlier this year it required manufacturers to include “repairability scores” for electronic goods that indicate how easily a device can be repaired.

“While these new rules are an important step as the first-ever regulations on repair for electronic and electrical devices, they do not mean that we have the right to repair in Europe yet,” Chloé Mikolajczak, a campaigner for Right to Repair Europe, told TechRepublic. She said the rules are good on paper but include loopholes, such as requiring spare parts to be supplied within 15 days.

Environmentalists have long accused manufacturers of designing devices with planned obsolescence, which also acts as a reflection of our consumer culture: we make a lot of products with no intention of them lasting. The circular economy seeks to address this, based on the idea that there should be less waste and products should be designed to last — and should be optimized for a cycle of disassembly and reuse that will make it easier to renew them.

The right to repair would tackle the growing amount of electronic waste generated every year across Europe substantially. Each person is estimated to generate more than 16 kilograms of e-waste every year and about half of it is due to broken household appliances. The EU only recycles about 40% of it and the rest is unsorted, leaving behind large amounts of potentially hazardous, polluting materials.

Outside the EU, other countries are also moving ahead with right-to-repair bills. In the US, for example, several state legislatures have introduced them over the last few years, attracting bipartisan support. California was the most recent case. Still, there’s no nationwide measure in force in the US, which could help move the circular economy even faster.

Electronic waste is on the decline in the US, but it’s only because TVs are getting smaller

Electronic waste is already well-established a global environmental problem, with millions of TVs and cellphones ending up in landfills or incinerated every year instead of being recycled. Still, the situation isn’t the same everywhere, according to a new study, which highlighted the drop in e-waste in the United States.

Image credit: Flickr / Ethan Oringel.

There is no federal-level e‐waste policy in the US — instead, e‐waste management is handled through a patchwork of state regulations. This has limited the number of studies on the issue, with most focused on other parts of the world. In the European Union, for example, legislations are uniform for all nations.

In a novel study, researchers from Yale University found that residential e-waste in the US is declining, with a net mass reduction of almost 10% since its peak in 2015 — but this isn’t really as good a sign as it seems. Instead, it’s mainly due to the disappearance of bulky cathode-ray tube (CRT) televisions and computer monitors and their replacement with thinner electronics.

CRT displays in the waste stream peaked in 2011, just a few years after the digital transition in television broadcast signals and the rapid switch to digitally-enabled flat-panel TVs. While CRT displays have declined in the waste stream since their peak, these devices still make up about one-third of the total mass of e‐waste.

“They emerged as a critical waste management problem due to the potential release and toxicity of the lead they contain, leading to policy and technology solutions aimed at keeping them in productive use. However, reuse and recycling pathways diminished along with consumer demand for these TVs,” the researchers wrote

Now, the contribution of flat panel display devices to total e‐waste is also becoming increasingly significant and will soon surpass CRTs with about 34% contribution to the total waste stream mass. Flat panels often have higher failure rates and shorter lifespans, leading to more frequent replacement cycles.

Callie Babbitt, one of the study’s authors, said that the decline in bulkier displays means that e-waste regulations will have to be rethought. Most of the state laws have targets based on product mass. But as the overall mass of e-waste declines, meeting those targets becomes more difficult, she argued.

The goal of the current regulations had been to avoid electronics with high levels of lead and mercury out of landfills, as they can leach into the environment. But now, a more significant concern is how elements like cobalt and indium can be recovered, as they are very scarce in the Earth’s crust.

Shahana Althaf, the lead author of the study, said that changing the e-waste recycling system to encourage the capture of more of these critical elements would help the US secure the supply of the ingredients needed to manufacture electronic devices. There are geological uncertainties that pose a threat to the US, she said.

“E‐waste management based on resource recovery could expand opportunities to both reduce sustainability impacts of primary mining and create a domestic supply of scarce materials such as cobalt and rare earth elements, which are currently sourced mostly from China, a geopolitical competitor of the US,” the researchers wrote.

There has to be a paradigm shift, they argued, through a joint effort from all stakeholders. Policymakers should change incentive structures and collective targets, recyclers should create and scale up business models for product reuse and manufacturers should adopt designs that maximize recycled content.

Still, this is a global issue that needs global solutions. A report by the UN earlier this year showed humans generated 53.6 million metric tons of electronic waste in 2019, almost two million metric tons more than the previous year. Only 17% of the waste was recycled and the rest ended up in landfills or incinerated.

Image credit: UN

Citizens of northern European countries produced the most e-waste last year, 22.4 kilograms per person. The amount was half that seen in eastern Europe. Australians and New Zealanders also ranked high with 21.3 kilograms per person, while in the US and Canada the figure was 20.9 kilograms.

The study was published in the Journal of Industrial Ecology.

A record 53.6 million tons of e-waste was produced last year, says UN

From flat-screen TVs to cellphones, humans generated 53.6 million metric tons of electronic waste last year, almost two million metric tons more than the previous year. Only 17% of the waste was recycled, with the rest ending up in landfills, incinerated or just unaccounted for.

Electronic and electrical goods such as computers, refrigerators, and kettles have gradually become indispensable in modern societies, making lives easier in many ways. But they can also have toxic chemicals, and a growing production of waste is damaging the environment and human health.

The figures for last year, reported by the United Nation’s Global E-waste Monitor, are equivalent to 7.3 kilograms of electronic waste for every man, woman and child on Earth, though the use is concentrated in wealthier countries.

The amount of e-waste is growing three times faster than the world’s population

Citizens of northern European countries produced the most e-waste last year, 22.4 kilograms per person. The amount was half that seen in eastern Europe. Australians and New Zealanders also ranked high with 21.3 kilograms per person, while in the US and Canada the figure was 20.9 kilograms.

“We are at the start of a kind of explosion due to increased electrification we see everywhere,” Ruediger Kuehr, one of the authors of the report, told The Verge. “It starts with toys, if you look at what is happening around Christmas, everything comes with a battery or plug. And it goes on with mobile phones and TV sets.”

The report also found that among the discarded plastic and silicon there were large amounts of precious metals such as copper and gold, used to conduct electricity on circuit boards. A sixth of it was recycled but the remainder wasn’t, accounting for $57 billion in metals.

The concerns are higher in low and middle-income countries, where some e-waste is recycled but using unsafe practices, such as burning circuit boards to recover copper. Doing so releases toxic metals such as mercury and lead that can cause severe health effects to workers and children living nearby.

About 50 tons of mercury from monitors, energy-saving light bulbs, and other e-waste is dumped each year, the report estimated. At the same time, gases released from discarded refrigerators and air-conditioning units were equivalent to 98 million tons of atmospheric carbon dioxide in 2019.

“E-waste is a very big problem because the amount is growing at a very rapid pace each year, and the level of recycling is just not keeping up the pace,” Kees Baldé at the UN University, based in Bonn, and an author of the report, told The Guardian. “It’s important to put a price on the pollution – at the moment it is simply free to pollute.”

Growth in e-waste is expected to continue unabated, in particular in countries that have growing middle classes. The authors of the study, which is produced by the UN University, the International Solid Waste Association and others, predicted that global e-waste could grow to 74 million metric tons by 2030.

Back in 2018, the UN had set a target of increasing the recycling of e-waste to 30% by 2023. But, as things are now, the report authors see the goal as unrealistic. The number of countries with national e-waste policies or laws in place has only increased from 61 to 78 since 2014, out of a total of 193 UN member states.