Amount of Global E-waste Has Grown 20 Percent in Five Years, UN Report Finds

Less than one-fifth of electronic waste is recycled, most of which is burned or dumped, figures show, while Israel struggles to enforce regulations on collection and recycling

Zafrir Rinat
Zafrir Rinat
Electronic waste or e-waste from old televisions is pictured in a junk shop in Makati City, Metro Manila, Philippines, July 2, 2020.
Electronic waste or e-waste from old televisions is pictured in a junk shop in Makati City, Metro Manila, Philippines, July 2, 2020.Credit: ELOISA LOPEZ/ REUTERS
Zafrir Rinat
Zafrir Rinat

The amount of electronic waste in the world grew by 20 percent in the last five years, and less than one-fifth of it is recycled, a UN report released Thursday says. It noted that most of the e-waste is burned or dumped, posing a health hazard, rather than recycled.

The third edition of the Global E-Waste Monitor 2020, based on 2019 data, estimates that a record amount of 53.6 metric tons of e-waste, which refers to “discarded products with a battery or plug such as computers and mobile phones,” was created, an increase of 21 percent in five years. China is the leading producer of e-waste at 10.1 million metric tons. Europe ranked first in per capita e-waste generation at 16.1 kg per capita, compared to 2.5 kg per capita in Africa.

Only 17.4 percent of this was “officially documented as formally collected and recycled,” according to the report. Europe is the only continent that significantly recycles, at a rate of 42.5 percent. Asia, which comes second behind Europe, recycles by a rate of about 11.7 percent, and the Americas at a rate of 9.4 percent.

The report describes e-waste as an “urban mine,” because of the great potential of extracting metals from them rather than from nature, which causes damage to wildlife and the environment. The main resources are copper, iron and gold but also rare metals. “The value of raw materials in the global e-waste generated in 2019 is equal to approximately $57 billion,” the report stated. The value of the raw materials recovered “in an environmentally sound way” from e-waste globally is $10 billion. The failure to recycle, then, has led to an estimated at $47 billion in unrealized potential for reusing these raw materials.

Most electronic products have toxic additives or hazardous substances, and failure to dispose of them properly raises the risk of polluting the air and water sources. They include, the report states, “Mercury, brominated flame retardants,” and chemical compounds destructive to the ozone layer. The fear of leakage of these substances is growing particularly in developing countries, which engage in informal recycling done by hand, without any waste treatment or pollution centers, and widespread burning.

Israel enacted legislation for treating e-waste eight years ago, which created two corporations responsible for collecting and recycling waste. Israel generates around 130,000 tons of waste annually, but the Environmental Protection Ministry struggles to carry out the provisions of the law. The ministry told Haaretz that it has not had any verified data for four years regarding the extent of recycling and compliance with the law.

The ministry stated that the aggregate amount e-waste recycled by the two corporations in 2014 was 17 percent, higher than the goal of 15 percent. “In 2015, the recycling goal of 20 percent was reached, as required by law,” it noted. “For 2016 and 2017, they reported that they met the recycling goals, but the ministry has yet to verify the reports and their meeting the law’s goals. 2018 is also being reviewed.”

The UN report’s authors estimate that the amount of e-waste will reach 74 million tons by the end of the decade, nearly double the amount within 16 years. “The growing amount of e-waste is mainly fueled by higher consumption rates of electrical and electronic equipment, short life cycles and few repair options,” the authors add.

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