E-waste — a toxic waste stream where valuable finite resources are lost

Electronic products equivalent to the weight of almost 4,500 Eiffel towers are discarded every year — and the amount is growing. Much of this e-waste is improperly handled, causing pollution, human health hazards and the loss of valuable finite resources.

A staggering 44.7 million metric tonnes of electronic waste, equalling nearly 4,500 Eiffel Towers, was generated globally in 2016, according to the United Nations University’s Global e-waste monitor. The report estimates that e-waste will increase to 52.2 million metric tonnes by 2021. It is the world’s fastest growing waste stream, for a number of reasons. The world’s population is increasing and the demand for electronic products is growing in line with increases in economic prosperity. Technological development is fast-paced and the price of IT products is dropping, leading to shorter product lifespans. Developed countries continue to contribute most to the problem, but developing countries are rapidly catching up.

Exported e-waste risk the health of vulnerable communities

Most countries have difficulty handling these large amounts of discarded products. In 2016, only 20 percent of electronic waste was recycled globally. While the focus has been on collecting products, not enough effort has gone into building infrastructure for processing the waste or safely recovering used materials. This has led to a shortage of facilities where e-waste can be managed safely. Instead, e-waste is mixed with residual waste, where it is often incinerated, placed in landfill, or exported to developing countries. E-waste exporters generally choose destinations lacking effective legislation that regulates how e-waste should be handled.

The export of e-waste is driven by two main factors: the demand for low priced electronics in the importing countries, and the fact that it is cheaper to export e-waste than to handle it domestically in accordance with stricter safety regulations. Western Africa and parts of Asia are common dumping grounds for e-waste exports. In these countries, local populations make a living by extracting and selling valuable materials. Products are manually disassembled, burned in the open air or dissolved in acid by local laborers including children, without adequate protective equipment. Electronic products contain a number of toxic substances hazardous to human health, with documented risk to the brain nervous system, lungs and kidneys as well as links to certain cancers. Toxic residues can leak and contaminate the soil, air and water, affecting surrounding ecosystems where the local communities grow their food, hunt and fish.

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 2016, it was estimated that electronic waste contained gold, silver, copper, platinum, palladium and other recoverable materials to a value of 55 billion Euros.

The circular economy — preventing e-waste and keeping materials in use

To avoid e-waste, products must be designed for reuse over a longer period. The concept of a circular economy is one that moves away from the linear “take, make and dispose” approach to products, to an economy that is more regenerative and decouples economic activity from the consumption of finite resources. For products, a move to a more circular approach means designing out waste from the product ecosystem, keeping products and materials in their intended use longer.

Product reuse is also more resource efficient than remanufacturing and recycling. For the IT industry, this means designing products that are durable, built to last, and upgradeable, making them more attractive for reuse or secondary markets.

Products must be designed for recycling, so that when re-use options are exhausted, they can be handled safely without risk to human health and the environment where the recycling is taking place. The percentage of the world’s population covered by national e-waste laws is growing, from 44 percent in 2014 to 66 percent in 2016, which is a very positive development. However, to be recycled, products must be designed and made with safer materials which can be used in new products, rather than the virgin materials used commonly today. Plastics often contain hazardous substances, that may be contained in flame retardants and plasticizers. With thousands of new chemicals entering the market every day, legislation simply cannot keep up with development. A much better way is to make sure all new chemicals are tested and proven to be safer alternatives before they can be used.

What you can do

Use your products for as long as possible. This is the single most effective thing you can do to minimize the negative effects on our planet.

Choose products that are designed to enable a more circular model and can live multiple lives by being repaired, upgraded and refurbished.

Consider if someone else might find the product useful when you no longer use it. Sell it ​​or donate to charity.

Make sure the product is recycled in a safe and responsible way at the end of its usable life.

How TCO Certified helps tackle the e-waste problem

Criteria in TCO Certified have a circular approach, driving the development of products that are durable, repairable and upgradeable as well as recyclable.

  • Criteria cover all phases of the product life cycle: material sourcing and manufacturing; use and re-use; recovery and recycling.
  • To remain functional for a long time, products must be repairable and upgradeable.
  • Certified products must have at least one year’s warranty and spare parts must be available for at least three years after the product model is no longer manufactured.
  • The brand owner must provide software which deletes data from the device securely and free of charge, so that the product can be recirculated without risk of data leakage.
  • The brand owner is responsible for offering take-back options at end of life.
  • Mobile products must be durable and endure high and low temperatures.
  • IT products are often replaced because the battery has lost its ability to hold a charge. TCO Certified includes criteria for battery life and replaceability.
  • Products must include an USB Type-C port. By using a standardized connector, fewer cables need to be manufactured and re-use of cables can increase.
  • By reducing the number of hazardous substances, materials can be safely recycled and reused for a long time to come, and maintain compliance with increasingly stricter legislation.

TCO Certified is the world’s most comprehensive sustainability certification for IT products, helping you make responsible product choices that drive the industry in a sustainable direction. Using TCO Certified also supports your organization in taking the next step in social and environmental responsibility.

Other sustainability issues connected to IT products
Conflict minerals used in IT products drive wars and human rights abuses
Social and environmental challenges in the IT product supply chain
Hazardous substances in IT products — a human health and environmental risk
The circular economy — a way of building a brighter and more resourceful future
Sources of information
  • The Global E-waste Monitor 2017. The United Nations University, the International Telecommunication Union, and the International Solid Waste Association, 2017.
  • Andreas Rehn, Certification Manger, TCO Development.