UN report warns of the mounting volume of electronic waste

14 Dec 2017

Electronic waste. Image: Natalia Ramirez Roman/Shutterstock

Our discarded electronics pose a serious threat to our planet and our health.

The UN this week warned of the growing volume of electronic waste – including mobile phones, refrigerators and laptops – and the major danger it poses to the environment.

The world has never been more plugged in and, while this offers numerous positives in terms of sharing information and connecting with loved ones, it also presents a significant challenge to the environment and human health.

Millions of tonnes of e-waste

The Global E-Waste Monitor 2017 was released by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the UN University and the International Solid Waste Association, and it highlights the increasing levels of e-waste and the improper disposal and treatment of our discarded technology.

In 2016, 44.7m metric tonnes of e-waste were generated, an increase of 3.3m metric tonnes, or 8pc, from 2014. Experts foresee e-waste increasing a further 17pc to 52.2m metric tonnes by 2021.

In 2016, only about 20pc of all e-waste was recycled.

“Environmental protection is one of the three pillars of sustainable development … E-waste management is an urgent issue in today’s digitally dependent world, where use of electronic devices is ever increasing,” said Houlin Zhao, secretary general of the ITU.

“The Global E-waste Monitor serves as a valuable resource for governments developing their necessary management strategies, standards and policies to reduce the adverse health and environmental effects of e-waste,” added Zhao.

With 53.6pc of global households now having internet access, national e-waste policies and legislation play an important role governing the actions of stakeholders that are associated with e-waste.

Much of the waste we dump is recyclable

Only 41 countries have e-waste statistics available. Germany had the highest quantity of e-waste generated in Europe, while the average European inhabitant generated 16.6kg of electronic waste.

On a somewhat positive note, 66pc of the world’s population (living in 67 countries) is currently covered by national e-waste management laws – a significant increase from 44pc in 2014.

The report also noted just how much of the waste we throw away actually still is useful.

In 2016, it was estimated that e-waste contained rich deposits of gold, silver, copper, platinum, palladium and other high-value, recoverable materials, with a total value estimated at $55bn, a figure exceeding the GDP of most countries in the world.

The report recommended implementing a circular economy model: “Circular economy models need to be adopted to encourage closing the loop of materials through better design of components, recycling, reusing etc, while mitigating the environmental pollution.”

Electronic waste. Image: Natalia Ramirez Roman/Shutterstock

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects