‘Equal in weight to almost nine Great Pyramids of Giza, 4,500 Eiffel Towers, or 1.23 million fully-loaded, 18-wheel, 40-ton trucks, enough to form a line 28,160km long, the distance from New York to Bangkok and back.’ That’s the scale of the world’s growing amount of electronic waste, according to the United Nations University (UNU), which has co-authored the The Global E-waste Monitor 2017.
The report, the first time a division of the UN has conducted a study into the problem, shines a light on the growing problem of e-waste – discarded products with a battery or plug, everything from end-of-life refrigerators and television sets, to solar panels, mobile phones, and computers. It found that some 44.7 million metric tonnes of electronic waste was generated in 2016, an increase of eight per cent from amounts seen in 2014.
Around 3.6 billion people now use the internet, almost half the global population; between 2013 and 2015 smartphone users started to delay their phone upgrades, but the average smartphone lifecycle is just one-and-a-half to two years; and by 2016 in the United States, most people owned a phone, every second person owned a desktop computer, and close to 25 per cent also owned an e-book reader.
Once these electronics are discarded the vast majority end up in landfill, despite them containing gold, silver, copper, platinum, palladium and other high value recoverable materials collectively worth more than $55billion.
“E-waste will continue growing in the next year because more and more people will have access to hi-tech electric and electronic equipment and our society is becoming more ‘digitalised’ every day”
Despite these daunting numbers, this ever-growing issue receives little global coverage. ‘One of the reasons why e-waste does not receive enough attention worldwide is the lack of specific legislation. Only 67 countries at the beginning of 2017 had legislation in place,’ says Vanessa Forti, one of the report’s authors. ‘One hardly connects developments of our latest technologies, partly manufactured under the cleanest laboratory standards, with environmental and health issues or the wasting of resources.’
The Global E-waste Monitor was started this year to redress this lack of attention, particularly as it appears the situation is set to deteriorate. ‘One of the key factors driving the generation of e-waste is the technological advances, particularly in computing power and mobile broadband technologies, together with decreases in the price of services and devices,’ says Forti. ‘E-waste will continue growing in the next year because more and more people will have access to hi-tech electric and electronic equipment and our society is becoming more “digitalised” every day.’
With electronics becoming more affordable and widespread, experts foresee a further 17 per cent increase by 2021. ‘We live in a time of transition to a more digital world, where automation, sensors, and artificial intelligence are transforming all the industries, our daily lives, and our societies,’ says Antonis Mavropoulos, president of the International Solid Waste Association. ‘E-waste is the most emblematic by-product of this transition and everything shows that it will continue to grow at unprecedented rates.’
The report calls for stepped-up global efforts to better design components in electrical and electronic equipment, facilitating reuse and recycling, combined with greater capture and recycling of old equipment. However, these measures can be difficult to implement and things look set to get worse before they get better.
Nonetheless, the report itself can be seen a step forward, since recognising and accurately monitoring the problem, at least for Jakob Rhyner, Vice-Rector at UNU, is the first step to recovery. ‘Improved measurement of e-waste is essential to set and monitor targets and identify policies,’ he says. ‘National data should be internationally comparable, frequently updated, published, and interpreted.’
Much work is still to be done to reverse the ever-growing tide of e-waste, but for the authors of the report, the hope is that it will inspire the fight back and mark the beginning of the end for e-waste. As Vanessa Forti puts it: ‘this initiative makes an important contribution to addressing the global e-waste challenges by raising awareness, encouraging more governments to track e-waste, and by carrying out workshops to build national and regional capacity.’
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