The world’s e-waste has reached crisis point

The phone or computer you’re reading this on probably won’t be around for much longer. Maybe you’ll throw it in the water, or your dog will make it into a chew toy, or maybe it’ll be scrapped. If you can’t fix it and have to throw it away, the device becomes e-waste, joining the alarming mountain of discarded TVs, refrigerators, washing machines, cameras, routers, electric toothbrushes, headphones, and more. This is “electrical and electronic equipment”, aka EEE – anything with a plug or battery. Things are getting out of control.

As economies develop and consumerist lifestyles spread around the world, e-waste has evolved into a full-scale environmental crisis. People in high-income countries own 109 EEE devices per capita, compared with just 4 in low-income countries. A new United Nations report finds that humans will generate 137 billion pounds of e-waste by 2022 — more than 17 pounds for every person on the planet — but less than a quarter of it will be recycled.

It also means about $62 billion worth of recyclable materials (such as iron, copper and gold) end up in e-waste landfills each year. At this rate, e-waste will grow by 33% by 2030, while recycling rates may drop to 20%. (You can see this growth in the image below: purple is electrical and electronic equipment on the market, black is e-waste, and green is recycled stuff.)

Provided by the United Nations Global Partnership on E-Waste Statistics

“What’s really shocking to me is that this is growing so much faster than e-waste can be properly collected and recycled,” said Kees Baldé, senior scientific specialist at the United Nations Institute for Training and Research and the report’s lead author. author. “We consume too much and dispose of it too quickly. We buy stuff we may not need because it’s so cheap. And the products are not designed to be repaired.”

The report emphasizes that humans must quickly increase recycling rates. In the first pie chart below you can see the huge amount of metals we can save, mainly iron (chemical symbol Fe, light gray), but also aluminum (Al, dark gray), copper (Cu) and nickel (Y ). Other EEE metals include zinc, tin and antimony. Overall, the report found that e-waste generated in 2022 contained 68 billion pounds of metal.

Provided by the United Nations Global Partnership on E-Waste Statistics

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