Global e-waste increases by 21 per cent in five years

The Global E-waste Statistics Partnership (GESP) launched the third edition of The Global E-Waste Monitor 2020 today (3 July), revealing a 21 per cent surge in global e-waste in the last five years.

A record 53.6 million metric tonnes (Mt) of e-waste was generated worldwide in 2019, and according to GESP, this figure is set to rise to 74 Mt by 2030, almost double the 2014 figure. This will be fuelled by higher electric and electronic (EEE) consumption rates, shorter lifecycles and limited repair options.

Electronic wasteThe report finds that only 17.4 per cent of e-waste in 2019 was officially documented as formally collected and recycled, meaning that high-value materials such as iron, copper and gold were mostly dumped or burned rather than being collected for treatment and reuse. The undocumented disposal of these recoverable materials, which the report values at $57 billion (USD), misses a vital opportunity to promote a circular economy through secondary material use.

According to the report, Asia generated the greatest volume of e-waste in 2019 (24.9 Mt), followed by the Americas (13.1 Mt) and Europe (12 Mt), while Africa and Oceania generated 2.9 Mt and 0.7 Mt respectively.

While the number of countries that have adopted a national e-waste policy has increased from 61 to 78 between 2014 and 2019, GESP finds that the regulation, enforcement, collection and management of e-waste is poor. Additionally, many regions have failed to harmonise with international methodology frameworks for e-waste statistics, leading to a dissonance in the product scope of these statistics across countries. The report calls for global leaders to adopt an internationally recognised framework to measure and monitor e-waste, which will better assess developments over time and help to set and evaluate targets.

E-waste poses ‘significant risks to the environment and to human health’, as it contains toxic additives or hazardous substances such as mercury. The report highlights that 50 tonnes of mercury are found in globally undocumented flows of e-waste annually, largely being released into the environment and, as a result, harming the health of exposed workers.

In the UK, all producers of electrical goods are required to recycle their electricals once they become waste under the WEEE Regulations 2013. This can be done through joining a compliance scheme, or, alternatively, businesses provide takeback options in stores. The latter option, however, has been interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic. Covid-19 has negatively affected the entire recycling supply chain, with the WEEE sector facing similar challenges to other sectors of the waste industry, despite promising figures from the first quarter of 2020. The WEEE sector faces additional difficulties as a result of the pandemic, including disruption to kerbside collections and a restricted flow of WEEE to electrical waste recyclers, due to the mass closure of Household Waste Recycling Centres (HWRC).

To soften the impact of the pandemic on the WEEE sector, the WEEE fund announced in May that it will be providing electrical waste recyclers with more than £5 million in financial support. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) also announced last month (8 June) that any methodology for calculating the 2020 WEEE compliance fee will take the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic into account.

The UK is consistently falling short of its targets, with the Environment Agency finding that the 2019 collection figures failed to reach targets for the third consecutive year. With every failed annual national target, the obligated producers must pay a ‘compliance fee’ which goes towards the WEEE Fund, which funds projects designed to support WEEE recycling and reuse.

Scott Butler, Executive Director at Material Focus, said: “Material Focus research has identified that in the UK, we are throwing away or hoarding 490,000 tonnes of domestic and commercial waste, and this is set to grow. Of this alone, UK households are throwing away 155,000 tonnes of domestic electrical waste every year and we are hoarding 527 million small old electricals (weighing around 190,000 tonnes) - nearly 20 items per household. In addition, 145,000 tonnes of commercial and industrial waste is also being thrown away. We have launched the Recycle Your Electricals campaign which is calling on UK households to stop throwing away their electricals and instead start recycling them.”

Material Focus, a non-profit organisation in the UK that works to limit WEEE, recently released a report on UK domestic WEEE, finding that households across the UK are throwing away 155,000 tonnes of small electricals every year. The reuse or passing on of disused electricals could result in potential savings of £370 million for the UK economy and potentially avoid up to 2.8 million tonnes in carbon emissions.

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