The World Threw Away 54 Million Tons of Electronics Last Year

It contained $10 billion of precious metals that were not retrieved.

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computer recycling facility
An employee reaches for electronic waste awaiting to be dismantled as recyclable waste in USA.

Zoran Milich / Getty Images

A shocking 53.6 million metric tons of electronic waste were discarded last year, a new UN-backed report has revealed. (A metric ton is the equivalent of 2,205 pounds.) This record-breaking number is tough to picture, but as the CBC explains, it's equivalent to 350 cruise ships the size of the Queen Mary 2, which could create a line 78 miles (125 km) long. 

The Global E-Waste Monitor releases reports about the state of electronic waste worldwide, and its third edition, published in July 2020, shows that e-waste is up 21% from five years ago. This isn't surprising, considering how many more people are adopting new technology and updating devices regularly to have the latest versions, but the report shows that national collection and recycling strategies are nowhere close to matching consumption rates.

E-waste (or Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment [WEEE], as it's called in Europe) refers to many forms of electronics and electric-powered items, from smartphones, laptops, and office equipment, to kitchen equipment, air conditioners, tools, toys, musical instruments, household appliances, and other products that rely on batteries or electrical plugs. 

These items often contain valuable metals that have been mined at great environmental cost and effort, but the metals are rarely retrieved when items are discarded. As the Guardian explained,

"E-waste contains materials including copper, iron, gold, silver and platinum, which the report gives a conservative value of $57 billion. But most are dumped or burned rather than being collected for recycling. Precious metals in waste are estimated to be worth $14 billion, but only $4 billion-worth is recovered at the moment."

While the number of countries with national e-waste policies has grown from 61 to 78 since 2014, there is minimal oversight and incentive to comply, and a mere 17% of collected items are recycled. If recycling does occur, it's often under dangerous conditions, such as burning circuit boards to recover copper, which "releases highly toxic metals such as mercury, lead and cadmium" and harms the health of workers and children who play nearby (via the Guardian).

workers sort batteries in Chinese recycling facility
Workers sort batteries in an electronic waste recycling factory in Jingmen, Hubei province in 2009. Jie Zhao / Getty Images 

The report explains that better recycling strategies could reduce the impact of mining, which has a significant toll on both the environment and the humans who do it:

"By improving e-waste collection and recycling practices worldwide, a considerable amount of secondary raw materials – precious, critical, and non-critical – could be made readily available to re-enter the manufacturing process while reducing the continuous extraction of new materials."

The report found that Asia has the highest amounts of waste overall, generating 24.9 million metric tons (Mt), followed by North and South America at 13.1 Mt, Europe at 12 Mt, Africa at 2.9 Mt, and Oceania at 0.7 Mt. 

A truer picture, however, is painted by per capita numbers, which show that Northern Europeans are the most wasteful overall, with each person discarding 49 pounds (22.4 kilograms) of e-waste annually. This is double the amount produced by Eastern Europeans. Australians and New Zealanders are next, throwing away 47 pounds (21.3 kilograms) per person each year, followed by the United States and Canada at 46 pounds (20.9 kilograms). Asians only toss 12.3 pounds (5.6 kilograms) on average and Africans 5.5 pounds (2.5 kilograms).

These numbers have gone up in 2020 due to the coronavirus lockdown, since more people are stuck at home, wanting to declutter, and there are fewer workers able to collect and recycle it all.

It's a wholly unsustainable system that must be fixed, especially since electronics adoption is only going to increase in coming years. As study author Kees Baldé, from the University of Bonn, said, "It’s important to put a price on the pollution – at the moment it is simply free to pollute." 

But whose responsibility is it? Are governments in charge of setting up collection and recycling points, or should companies be on the hook for recycling the goods they produce? It goes both ways. Companies do need to be held accountable by government regulations and have incentives to design products that are easily repaired and/or disassembled (read more about the Right to Repair movement), without any built-in obsolescence. 

At the same time, governments need to make it easy for citizens to access collection points and dispose of their broken electronics in a convenient way, otherwise, they may revert to the easiest option, which is the landfill. There should also be campaigns to prolong the lifespan of certain consumer goods, and to avoid tossing perfectly fine devices just because a sleeker, newer version is now available.