Growing e-waste problem

Piles of electronic waste are rising rapidly across the globe.

By 2017, all of the year’s end-of-life refrigerators, TVs, mobile phones, computers, monitors, e-toys and other products with a battery or electrical cord worldwide could fill a line of 40-tonne trucks end-to-end on a highway straddling three quarters of the Equator.

That forecast, based on data compiled by Solving the E-Waste Problem (StEP) Initiative – a partnership of United Nations organisations, industry, governments, non-government and science organisations – represents a global jump of 33% in just five years. While most of these used e-products are destined for disposal, gradually improving efforts in some regions are diverting some of it to recycling and reuse.

The escalating global e-waste problem is graphically portrayed in a first-of-its-kind StEP E-Waste World Map, available online at

The interactive map resource, presenting comparable annual data from 184 countries, shows the estimated amount of electrical and electronic equipment (EEE – anything with a battery or a cord) put on the market and how much resulting e-waste is eventually generated.

By providing a better sense of e-waste quantities to anticipate, the initiative is expected to help governments and companies plan e-waste management.

The map shows, for example, that almost 48.9 million tonnes of used electrical and electronic products was produced last year – an average of 19.6kg (comparable to eight red clay bricks) for each of the world’s seven billion people.

And the flood of e-waste is growing. Based on current trends, StEP experts predict that by 2017, the total annual volume will be 33% higher at 65.4 million tonnes, the weight equivalent of almost 200 Empire State Buildings or 11 Great Pyramids of Giza.

In the dismantling process, the used mobile phones are stripped down to even smaller components, which are then categorised into a ¿waste stream¿ consisting of plastic, ferrous metal, electronic scrap and so on.
In this recycling factory in Penang, used mobile phones are stripped down so that useful metals and plastics can be extracted.

“Although there is ample information about the negative environmental and health impacts of primitive e-waste recycling methods, the lack of comprehensive data has made it hard to grasp the full magnitude of the problem,” says Ruediger Kuehr of United Nations University and executive secretary of the StEP Initiative.

“We believe that this constantly updated, map-linked database showing e-waste volume by country together with legal texts will help lead to better awareness and policy making at the public and private levels.”

The StEP e-waste world map database shows that in 2012, China and the United States topped the world’s totals in market volume of EEE and e-waste. China put the highest volume of EEE on the market in 2012 – 11.1 million tonnes, followed by the US at 10 million tonnes. Those positions were reversed when it came to the total volume of e-waste generated per year, there being more products put on the market in the past in the US which are now likely to be retired. Here the US had the world’s highest figure of 9.4 million tonnes and China generated the second highest e-waste total of 7.3 million tonnes.

However, the world’s two biggest economies were far apart when it came to the amount of annual e-waste per person. Here the US was highest among major countries (and seventh overall) with each American responsible for an average 29.8kg of hi-tech trash. That was almost six times higher than China’s per capita figure of 5.4kg.

According to the map, Malaysia produced 415 kilotonnes of electrical and electronic equipment in 2012, and generated e-waste amounting to 289.32 kilotonnes or 9.96kg per inhabitant.

The map includes information on e-waste rules, regulations, policies and guidance – all of which highlight the huge variety of requirements and lack of consistency in tackling the e-waste issue throughout the world.

A report released in tandem with the map was developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Materials Systems Laboratory and the US National Centre for Electronics Recycling (NCER), and funded by the US Environmental Protection Agency in support of the US government’s National Strategy for Electronics Stewardship.

The detailed analysis of the United States’ generation, collection and export of some types of used electronics shows that about 258.2 million used computers, monitors, TVs and mobile phones were generated in 2010. Mobile phones constitute the biggest component in units – with an estimated 120 million collected – while TVs and computer monitors made up a major proportion of the total weight.

“The release of this study in the US is key to understanding one piece of the puzzle about exports of used electronics. The research also shows substantial increases in the US in collecting used electronics, and will set a baseline to measure future progress,” said Jason Linnell, executive director of NCER.

Despite growing interest and concern surrounding transboundary movements of used electronics around the world, there is a dearth of data on their movements because of inherent challenges in obtaining such information.

These challenges include limited mechanisms for data collection, undifferentiated trade codes, inconsistent categorising and labelling of used electronics as well as their components, minimal regulatory oversight, and limited agreement on the definitions of end uses (for instance, reuse versus recycling and shipments for repair versus recycling).

Two-thirds of the used units (56% of total weight) were collected for reuse or recycling and 8.5% of the collected units (3.1% of total weight) were exported as whole units. This export figure, based on trade data, likely represents the low end of the range as not all whole units may be shipped using appropriate trade codes.

Researchers say disassembled products could have been shipped separately but were not tracked. The research shows that most larger electronic items, especially TVs and monitors, were exported overland or by sea to destinations such as Mexico, Venezuela, Paraguay and China while used computers, especially laptops, were more likely to go to Asian countries such as Hong Kong, United Arab Emirates and Lebanon. The main destinations for mobile phones were Hong Kong and countries in Latin America and the Caribbean such as Paraguay, Guatemala, Panama, Peru and Colombia.

“An advantage of the trade data approach is that it tracks the destinations of shipped products,” says report co-author Randolph Kirchain of MIT. “However, the destination in the trade data may be an initial stopping point. Re-exports and final destinations are not always reported.”

The report underlines great ongoing challenges in related intelligence gathering worldwide, such as a lack of consistent definitions for categorising and labelling used electronics and their components, minimal regulatory oversight, and limited agreement on the definitions of end uses. Among several recommendations:

> Create trade codes for used electronic products to enable better tracking and distinction of shipments.

> More open access to shipment level trade data to enable more accurate analyses of export flows.

> Greater reporting of re-export destinations to improve the accuracy of final destinations.

> Track flows over multiple years to discern trends.

Solving the E-Waste Problem fosters dialogue, cooperation and consensus by providing a global platform for sharing information, knowledge and recommendations.

The initiative works with partners to develop policies for effective responses to e-waste prevention, management and processes. — UN

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