E-waste is growing at 5 times the rate it can be recycled

The UN’s Global E-waste Monitor (GEM) 2024 has revealed that the amount of electronic waste produced is growing 5 times faster than it can be recycled. As well as posing risks to the environment, incorrectly disposing of e-waste means that precious materials are being wasted. With limited global resources and looming Net Zero deadlines, the current rate of e-waste production needs to be addressed before it’s too late.

Let’s explore these issues in more detail.

What is e-waste?

E-waste, or electronic waste, is classed as any discarded product with a plug or battery. Sometimes referred to as waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE), this includes items such as mobile phones, remote controls, televisions, gaming consoles and washing machines.

E-waste doesn’t include batteries themselves, as they have a different end-of-life process, or electrical items that are designed for and installed in a vehicle, as they aren’t stand-alone items and only function as part of the vehicle.

What are the negative effects of e-waste?

Electronic waste is a health and environmental hazard, with many items containing toxic or hazardous substances such as lead, cadmium, mercury and nickel. These substances can leach into the soil, causing various health problems including cancer, respiratory problems, birth defects and more.

E-waste also contains large amounts of precious materials such as steel, aluminium, copper, lithium and even gold. Mining and processing these materials creates pollution and harms wildlife, so it’s important to reclaim as much of it as possible to minimise the impact on our environment.

E-waste worldwide

The UN’s Global E-waste Monitor (GEM) 2024 shows that a record 62 million tonnes of e-waste was produced worldwide in 2022, an increase of 82% from 2010. Meanwhile, just 22.3% of this e-waste mass was documented as having been properly collected and recycled.

By 2030, the GEM also reports that e-waste production will rise to 82 million tonnes, while the difference in recycling efforts compared to the fast growth of worldwide e-waste generation will mean a drop in the collection and recycling rate to just 20%. All of this puts the world in a precarious position if countries can’t do more to increase the amount of e-waste that is reused or recycled.

E-waste in the UK

Material Focus, a not-for-profit company working to promote the reuse and recycling of electrical items, shared some enlightening statistics in their 2023 study of UK electrical waste. The study estimates that UK households are hoarding an average of 30 e-waste items – an increase of 50% within the last four years – and throwing away 103,000 tonnes of electricals instead of recycling them.

Despite these findings, the government has made little progress on tackling e-waste in the UK. In November 2020, the Environment Audit Committee (EAC) published a report on electronic waste, which included 27 recommendations to counteract electronic waste. While the government fully accepted one of these recommendations and part-accepted 22 others, the EAC wrote to the UK Government to share concerns that current measures don’t appear to implement any of them.

Disposing of e-waste responsibly

One of the biggest challenges of disposing of WEEE responsibly is that, while it’s common knowledge that these items aren’t supposed to be thrown away with general waste, people are unsure how to correctly dispose of them. This is a contributing factor to the increase in hoarding of waste electricals. Although this prevents them from being disposed of incorrectly, it also keeps valuable resources from being reused.

The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is taking action to move to a more circular economy in the UK, including proposals to make it easier to recycle and reuse unwanted electricals, and a ban on disposable vapes. Another key proposal would see producers of electrical goods being held responsible for their collection and treatment when they reach end-of-life.

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