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Global e-waste to eclipse Great Wall of China in 2021

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This year’s worldwide mountain of waste electronic and electrical equipment (WEEE) will total an estimated 57.4 million tonnes – greater than the weight of the Great Wall of China, Earth’s heaviest artificial object.

This is according to the WEEE Forum, a Brussels-based not-for-profit international association, speaking as the world celebrates International E-Waste Day today.

The day is used to highlight the importance of repairing or correctly disposing of used appliances, with the aim to increase re-use, recovery and recycling rates.

On International E-Waste Day 2021, experts and producer responsibility organisations are calling on households, businesses and governments to get behind efforts to get more dead or unused plug-in or battery-operated products to facilities where they can be repaired or recycled, to recover a king’s fortune in valuable materials and reduce the need for new resources, says the WEEE Forum.

It points out that last year’s Global E-waste Monitor reported that an estimated 53.6 million metric tonnes (Mt) of WEEE was generated in 2019, representing a 21% jump in the five years since 2014 (with e-waste on a predicted course to 74Mt by 2030).

“Global e-waste generation is, therefore, growing annually by 2Mt, or about 3% to 4%, a problem attributed to higher consumption rates of electronics (increasing 3% annually), shorter product lifecycles and limited repair options,” the organisation says.

According to the e-Waste Association of South Africa (eWASA), South Africa generates about 6.2kg of e-waste per inhabitant annually and only 12% of that is recycled.

eWASA was created in 2008 to manage the establishment of a sustainable environmentally-sound e-waste management system for the country.

Since then, the non-profit organisation has been working with manufacturers, vendors and distributors of electronic and electrical goods and e-waste handlers (including refurbishers, dismantlers and recyclers) to manage e-waste effectively.

Hoarding challenge

The WEEE Forum says according to estimates in Europe, where the problem is best studied, 11 of 72 electronic items in an average household are no longer in use or are broken. Annually per citizen, another 4kg to 5kg of unused electrical and electronic products are hoarded in Europe prior to being discarded, it notes.

When it comes to mobile phones, a French study estimates that 54 million to 113 million mobile phones, weighing 10- to 20-tonnes, are sleeping in drawers and other storage spaces in French homes, says the organisation.

In the US, it adds, while many mobile phones are recycled, an estimated 151 million or more phones a year – approximately 416 000 a day – are trashed and end up incinerated or landfilled, and 40% of heavy metals in US landfills come from discarded electronics.

By weight, discarded big appliances such as stoves and refrigerators constitute the largest component of e-waste, says the forum.

These large appliances contain steel, copper and aluminium, which makes them attractive to thieves, it notes, adding that despite concerted efforts by governments at many levels, this problem persists.

Even in the European Union (EU), which has had comprehensive Extended Producer Responsibility legislation in place for nearly two decades, consisting of targets and legal responsibilities, the EU’s formal e-waste collection rate is 55% (2018).

Says Pascal Leroy, director-general of the WEEE Forum, the organisation behind International E-Waste Day: “Many factors play a role in making the electrical and electronics sector resource-efficient and circular.

“For example, our member producer responsibility organisations collected and secured responsible recycling of 2.8Mt of e-waste in 2020. But one thing stands out: 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.

“This year’s focus for International E-Waste Day is the crucial role each of us has 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 tonne of WEEE recycled avoids around two tonnes of CO2 emissions. If we all do the right thing with our e-waste, we will help to reduce harmful CO2 emissions.”

Richer in gold

When asked about recycling rates, the forum says members of the public estimate that 40-50% of e-waste is recycled.

In the case of cellphones, tablets, computers and other small information technology products, many factors are thought to discourage recycling, including data security, product value, difficult-to-reach return points, and uncertainty about appropriate recycling, among others, it adds.

Says Ruediger Kuehr, director of the SCYCLE Programme and head of the United Nations Institute for Training and Research’s office in Bonn, the value of WEEE components in the world’s “urban mines” is enormous.

“A tonne of discarded mobile phones is richer in gold than a tonne of gold ore,” Kuehr points out. “Embedded in one million cellphones, for example, are 24kg of gold, 16 000kg of copper, 350kg of silver, and 14kg of palladium – resources that could be recovered and returned to the production cycle. And if we fail to recycle these materials, new supplies need to be mined, harming the environment.”

“Moreover, the recovery of gold and other material from waste saves a lot of carbon dioxide emissions when compared with virgin metal mining,” says Kees Baldé, senior programme officer of the UN University’s SCYCLE Programme.

He adds that 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 in those parts of the world without extended producer responsibility legislation in 2019 rather than being collected for treatment and reuse.

The WEE Forum believes that successfully raising collection rates requires every actor to be involved, including consumers.

“Alongside convenience, financial compensation, care for the environment, culture and social norms, awareness is one of the key motivators for people to take action on e-waste,” says Magdalena Charytanowicz of the WEEE Forum in charge of International E-Waste Day.

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