UN report: electronic waste is growing over our heads

© terovesalainen – stock.adobe.com

Whether in the living room, office or other rooms – there are electrical appliances everywhere. It becomes a global problem. Because far too little is recycled. Also in Germany.


Anyone who has ever stood in front of a cruise ship knows that such a ship is damn big. And damn hard. It is therefore no coincidence that the authors of the “Global E-Waste Monitor 2020” – an inventory of the worldwide problem with electronic waste – use exactly these sea giants as a benchmark. Your calculation: It would take 350 ships the size of the giant steamer “Queen Mary 2” to weigh out all the discarded monitors, thrown away cell phones and disposed refrigerators that mankind has produced in the past year. It is a huge number. For a huge problem.

The global mountain of electronic waste continues to grow. This is stated in the report, which was published on Thursday and to which the United Nations University, among others, co-wrote. In 2019, 53.6 million tons were collected, which means growth of 21 percent within five years. The authors call it a record. And the forecast is no different: 74 million tons are expected in 2030.

The reasons for this are diverse. One is very simple: technical innovation. Manufacturers are always coming up with new things that make life easier or are just gimmicks. “This is the wiggling dog, this is the electrical tool for the garden, these are intelligent items of clothing that measure the pulse,” says Rüdiger Kühr, one of the co-authors of the report. Another reason: According to Kühr, a larger part of the world population can now afford certain devices. The fact that the large mass quickly becomes a lot of scrap is due to the sometimes short lifespan of many devices. In addition, it is often very difficult to repair them in the event of a defect.

The experts noted growth among other things in discarded equipment that is used to regulate temperature – for example in air conditioning systems and refrigerators (plus seven percent compared to 2014). Europe leads the statistics per capita. On average, every European contributed 16.2 kilograms to e-scrap mountain in 2019.

The problem is not just the mass, but also how it is dealt with. According to calculations by the UN experts, only 17.4 percent of the e-waste produced was collected and recycled in 2019. Europe still performs best with a recycling rate of 42.5 percent. Asia is in second place with only 11.7 percent. Africa has the lowest rate at 0.9 percent.

Simply dumped e-waste can be dangerous for people and the environment – it contains dangerous substances such as mercury. Accordingly, the report states that the combination of more and more scrap, a low collection rate and non-ecological deposition means “significant risks” for the environment and health. At the same time, immense raw materials are wasted. Precious materials are also dormant in the devices – whether gold, silver, copper or platinum. The material value of the e-scrap mountain 2019 is estimated at $ 57 billion in the report.

Although the export of broken electronics is prohibited, much of it ends up in Africa. The informal recycling of e-waste is big business in some places, for example in Agbogbloshie in the Ghanaian capital Accra. The slum is notorious as Africa’s largest e-waste dump, but is more of a well-functioning junkyard. Thousands of people take devices apart by hand, remove the valuable materials and sell them on.

However, the environmental and health risks are very high. Because most people have neither protective clothing nor the right tools and know-how to safely use the devices. “Governments need to improve conditions for workers,” says Vanessa Forti of the United Nations University. More regulation and support in the form of tools and training are needed.

There is still some catching up to do in Germany, said study co-author Kühr. “The Germans like to boast of being world champions in waste sorting,” he said. When it comes to electronic waste, however, it is not so progressive. The collection rate is estimated to be around 50 percent. Citizens could take their old devices to containers, to specialty stores and to recycling centers. But too often this is not used. Many things just go into the bin, others are simply dumped somewhere. Keyword: the washing machines in the forest.

“One wonders: why is something like this practiced at all? That can only be ignorance or a lack of knowledge, ”said Kühr. One solution could be stronger incentives to properly move devices away. For example, a discount on a new device if you hand in the old one. Kühr pointed out that there had already been a rethink in other environmental areas, such as plastic waste. “I would like that to happen soon for electronic waste as well,” he said. “Because otherwise we will really run into a really big crisis.”

[Jonas-Erik Schmidt und Gioia Forster]

Image source:

  • Smartphone_2: © terovesalainen – stock.adobe.com


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