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Global e-waste shoots up while recycling takes back seat

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In five years, the world’s electronic waste (e-waste) has surged by 21%, with a record of 53.6 million metric tonnes of e-waste produced globally in 2019.

This is according to new information in the United Nations (UN) Global E-waste Monitor 2020, recently released by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).

The global e-waste assessment report is a collaborative product of the Global E-waste Statistics Partnership, formed by UN University (UNU), the ITU, and the International Solid Waste Association (ISWA), in close collaboration with the UN Environment Programme.

Challenges in responsibly disposing digital and tech devices are well-documented. Based on the past year’s global e-waste assessment, the situation continues to be a hurdle for many countries.

In 2019, e-waste mainly comprised small equipment (17.4 million metric tonnes), large equipment (13.1 million metric tonnes), and temperature exchange equipment (10.8 million metric tonnes). Screens and monitors, small IT and telecommunication equipment, and lamps represented 6.7 million metric tonnes, 4.7 million metric tonnes, and 0.9 million metric tonnes, respectively.

The 53.6 million metric tonnes e-waste generated last year weighed as much as 350 cruise ships the size of the Queen Mary 2, enough to form a line 125km long.

The ITU assessment further predicts that global e-waste will reach 74 million metric tonnes by 2030, almost a doubling of e-waste in just 16 years.

Sign of the times?

Keith Anderson, chairman of the e-Waste Association of South Africa (eWasa), says the increase in the amount of e-waste generated per person worldwide corresponds with the increased uptake of technology in our daily lives at work, home and recreationally.

“That is why e-waste is the fastest growing waste stream in the world,” says Anderson. “If we do not take drastic steps to properly collect and treat our e-waste, we will have an enormous challenge in the future.”

For David Malone, rector at UNU and UN under-secretary-general, this year's e-waste findings suggest humanity is not sufficiently implementing the sustainable development goals.

“Substantially greater efforts are urgently required to ensure smarter and more sustainable global production, consumption and disposal of electrical and electronic equipment. This report contributes mightily to the sense of urgency in turning around this dangerous global pattern.”

Doreen Bogdan-Martin, director in the ITU’s telecommunication development bureau, adds: “The Global E-waste Monitor highlights the pressing issue of e-waste management in today’s digitally connected world in that the way we produce, consume and dispose of electronic devices has become unsustainable.

“Monitoring e-waste streams will contribute to the achievement of the sustainable development goals and tracking the implementation of the ITU Connect 2030 Agenda. The monitor serves as a valuable resource for governments to improve their global e-waste recycling rate by developing the necessary/needed/required e-waste policies and legislation.”

While Asia tops as the continent with the greatest volume of e-waste generated in 2019, the African continent generated 2.9 million metric tonnes of e-waste, according to the report.

On the South African front, Anderson says the country currently doesn’t have the e-waste infrastructure in place to deal with this challenge.

In addition, SA lacks specific legislation and policies to cover this sector, says the eWasa chairman.

“We need to substantially increase our awareness and education about the dangers of e-waste health issues, as waste-pickers are exposing themselves to a number of hazards. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought further challenges as research has shown that the virus attaches itself to various metals and plastic, and remains active for a number of days, depending on the item.”

Recycling constraints

According to the report, recycling activities are not keeping pace with the global growth of e-waste.

Only 17.4% of last year’s e-waste was collected and recycled, reveals the ITU assessment report.

This, it notes, means gold, silver, copper, platinum and other high-value, recoverable materials conservatively valued at $57 billion – a sum greater than the gross domestic product of most countries – were mostly dumped or burned rather than being collected for treatment and re-use.

The statistics show that in 2019, the continent with the highest collection and recycling rate was Europe with 42.5%, Asia ranked second at 11.7%, the Americas and Oceania were similar at 9.4% and 8.8%, respectively.

The African continent had the lowest rate, with 0.9% e-waste documented to be collected and properly recycled.

“Far more electronic waste is generated than is being safely recycled in most parts of the world,” says Nikhil Seth, executive director of the UN’s Institute for Training and Research and UN assistant secretary-general. “More cooperative efforts are required to make aware of this increasing issue and take appropriate counter-measures supplemented by appropriate research and training.”

In SA, Anderson says the recovery and treatment of e-waste varies between 6-12%, which is low.

However, he is confident once the proposed extended producer responsibility (EPR) plan is gazetted, these numbers will double in the first year and thereafter continue with a sharp upward recovery curve.

“The Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries is engaging with the e-waste sector, among others, to put in place an EPR programme to deal with the e-waste challenge. eWasa, as a registered PRO, will be submitting a national plan to deal with e-waste. It will cover all types of e-waste and batteries, and will set out the policies and procedures in line with proposed legislation.

“The eWasa plan will create significant new jobs, infrastructure and focus on education and training. We hope to have this in place before the end of this year,” he concludes.

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