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

Fifty million metric tonnes of e-waste is generated every year, equalling the weight of nearly 4,500 Eiffel towers. Much of it is incinerated or placed in landfill, causing pollution, human health hazards and the loss of valuable finite resources.

According to the United Nations University’s Global e-waste monitor, around 50 million metric tonnes of electronic products are discarded every year. E-waste is the world’s fastest growing waste stream and the amount is estimated to increase to 52.2 million metric tonnes by 2021 unless this trend is reversed. 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. Developed countries continue to contribute most to the problem, but developing countries are rapidly catching up.

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E-waste is the world’s fastest growing waste stream and much of it is handled unsafely, causing pollution, human health hazards, and the loss of valuable finite resources. Take this short quiz to test your e-waste knowledge.


Exported e-waste risk the health of vulnerable communities

Most countries have difficulty handling these vast amounts of discarded products in a responsible and resource efficient way. 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. 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 — leading to severe health problems. 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. The hazardous substances are also spread to other continents through the air and the sea.

44.7 million metric tonnes of e-waste was generated in 2016