A UN report is shining a light on the vast amounts of e-waste produced across the world, with 50 million tonnes of used electrical items going to waste every year.
Titled ‘A New Circular Vision for Electronics’, the report was put together by the UN E-Waste Coalition and the Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy (PACE), an initiative set up in 2017 to facilitate the development of circular business models and projects.
It is calling for a complete overhaul of the current electronics system, pointing out the benefits of a circular system in which used items are reused and recycled to maintain their value for as long as possible, rather than being discarded while ever more natural resources are mined for the manufacture of new products.
Waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) is one of the world’s most damaging and least recycled waste streams. More than 44 million tonnes of WEEE was produced worldwide in 2017, but around 80 per cent of this still ended up in landfill or being informally processed in developing countries, often by waste pickers who work on or around landfill sites sorting valuable materials for sale.
In these environments, workers are exposed to hazardous substances, substances that can also leach into groundwater and contaminate the environment. Moreover, much of the plastic and other materials in e-waste dumps ends up being burned, often out in the open, where toxic fumes can spread for miles around. Yet many workers on these sites depend on the waste to make a living, meaning the e-waste conundrum is not one that can be easily fixed.
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The value of WEEE lost to the economy is vast – the report estimates the total value of global e-waste at more than $62.5 billion (£47.8bn), much of this stemming from the gold, platinum, cobalt and other precious resources used in the manufacture of electronics. Seven per cent of the world’s gold may currently be contained in e-waste.
The problem is set to get much bigger if current trends continue, with WEEE reaching a potential 120 million tonnes annually by 2050. However, the value in this so far under-acknowledged waste stream could provide the impetus governments and businesses need to make changes. The report states that there is ‘an opportunity to build a more circular electronics system, one in which resources are not extracted, used and wasted, but valued and reused in ways that create decent, sustainable jobs. In short, we need a new vision for electronics.’
Suggested solutions include durable product design, buy-back and return systems for used electronics, ‘urban mining’ to extract metals and minerals from e-waste, and the ‘dematerialisation’ of electronics by replacing outright device ownership with rental and leasing models in order to maximise product reuse and recycling opportunities.
The report was launched last week (24 January) at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, an annual meeting of global leaders in business, government, academia and the third sector. Coinciding with the release of the report, the Nigerian Government has announced $2-million (£1.53-million) worth of funding to kickstart WEEE recycling, supported by the Global Environment Facility and UN Environment.
Nigeria is particularly burdened by e-waste, dealing with over 1.1 million tonnes of WEEE every year, both from domestic products and imported electricals. The country’s weak port regulation system means that second-hand products are often imported illegally without proper testing to see if they are useable.
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The new funding, which is expected to bring in millions more from the private sector, will be used to develop and bolster formal WEEE recycling efforts in Nigeria, which are currently flagging. The money will also be used to safeguard and formalise the work of waste pickers in the country to ensure they are provided ‘safe and decent employment’.
Joyce Msuya, UN Environment Acting Executive Director, commented: “UN Environment is proud to support this innovative partnership with the Government of Nigeria and the Global Environment Facility and support the country’s efforts to kick start a circular electronics system. Our planet’s survival will depend on how well we retain the value of products within the system by extending their life.”
You can read the UN’s e-waste report in full on the World Economic Forum website.