E-waste is the world’s fastest-growing waste stream. There are several reasons for the increase. The world’s population is growing and economic prosperity reaches more people. Technological development is fast-paced and the price of IT products is dropping, leading to shorter product lifespans. A United Nations University study shows that Asia generated 24.9 Mt of e-waste in 2019, or 5.6 kg per capita, of which only 11.7% (2.9 Mt) was documented to be collected and properly recycled. In Europe, the total amount was 12.0 Mt of e-waste produced in 2019, or 16.2 kg of e-waste per capita. This leaves Asia as the largest producer of e-waste in the world. Not only does Asia have to combat the e-waste that is produced locally, Asia is also one of the larger dumping sites for e-waste from other countries.
It is a waste of valuable resources. Apart from being a risk to human health and the environment, the current way of handling e-waste has a negative economic impact. Electronic products contain a number of scarce, valuable resources, that are also essential for meeting our future product needs. In the same report, it was estimated that the value of raw materials in the global e-waste generated in 2019 is equal to approximately $57 billion USD. The organization Closing the Loop, working with offsetting mobile phones, estimates that at least 95% of the gold, silver, copper, palladium and platinum included in IT products can be extracted during the recycling process, and potentially reused in new products. If products are simply placed in landfills or burned through combustion or incineration, these valuable resources are wasted and the hazardous substances may be released into the environment and potentially end up in the food we eat and the water we drink.
The current linear system is fragile. Our current, linear way of producing and consuming products is ruining fragile ecosystems, causing the loss of valuable natural resources and resulting in unsustainable amounts of e-waste.
Part of the solution is political steering. Many Asian countries need to develop systems for responsible handling of e-waste, as well as official policies and political decisions. Whilst this development can take time, purchasers can act now.