Globally only 20% of e-waste is recycled – this must change

I’ve been driving around for the past several weeks with a pile of obsolete electronics in the back of my car – my plan is to drop them off at a local recycling center, but I never seem to make it to the destination. I’ve got even more e-waste in my basement, which I’ve pledged to clean out after the first of the year (yeah, right).

During the past decade, my husband, kids and I have managed to amass a collection of eight laptops, three desktop computers, three tablets, 10 mobile phones, one clunky 27-inch television, a refrigerator and a water heater that have become obsolete or no longer function. All of this is e-waste, according to the Global E-waste Monitor, a joint project of the United Nations University, the International Telecommunication Union and the International Solid Waste Association. The Monitor classifies it in five categories:

  • Cooling and freezing equipment (refrigerators and freezers, for example)
  • Screens and monitors, which includes TVs, laptops, notebooks and tablets
  • Lamps and lighting
  • Large appliances such as washers, dryers and stoves
  • Small appliances like vacuums and coffee makers
  • Small IT, which includes PCs, phones, GPS devices, routers, etc.

Weighing the problem

In terms of electronics consumption in developed nations, my family is average (maybe even below average, considering that we only have one television in our household and we keep our mobile phones for at least two years). Yet even the average among us generate many kilograms of electronic waste per person each year.

According to the latest edition of the Monitor, which was released this week, the United States produces about 19 kilograms (43 pounds) of e-waste per person annually, while the UK produces even more at 25 kilograms (55 pounds) per person. China and its Special Administrative Regions Hong Kong and Macau top the list, collectively generating 40.8 kilograms (90 pounds) per person.

A total of 44.7 million metric tonnes (Mt) of e-waste were generated globally last year. That’s a staggering amount equivalent to the weight of 4,500 Eiffel Towers, and projections are for it to grow to 52.2Mt in 2021.

Source: Global E-waste Monitor

Recycling efforts lag

Even more troubling is that only a small percentage of this waste is recycled.

“Of those 44.7 Mt, approximately 1.7 Mt are thrown into the residual waste in higher-income countries, and are likely to be incinerated or land-filled,” the report states. “Globally, only 8.9 Mt of e-waste are documented to be collected and recycled, which corresponds to 20 percent of all the e-waste generated.”

Asia, which generates the largest amount of e-waste (18.2Mt), has a 15 percent collection rate. Europe the, second-largest generator (12.3Mt), has the highest collection rate at 35 percent, and the Americas, which generate 11.3Mt of e-waste, have a collection rate of just 17 percent.

The low collection rate is partially explained by the fact that only 41 countries have official e-waste statistics, while data for 16 other countries was gathered from research and estimated, according to the report. “The fate of a large majority of the e-waste (34.1 Mt) is simply unknown,” it states. “In countries where there is no national e-waste legislation in place, e-waste is likely treated as other or general waste.

“This is either land-filled or recycled, along with other metal or plastic wastes. There is the high risk that the pollutants are not taken care of properly, or they are taken care of by an informal sector and recycled without properly protecting the workers, while emitting the toxins contained in e-waste.”

How is e-waste collected?

E-waste typically is collected in four ways, according to the Monitor:

  • An official take-back system the government, designated organizations and/or producers collect the waste and process it at a state-of the-art facility to recover reusable material; this is the best-case scenario.
  • Mixed residual waste – in this case consumers put e-waste into the trash and most of it ends up in landfills.
  • Collection outside an official take-back system in developed countries – in this scenario, waste companies or dealers collect the e-waste and monetize the reusable materials.
  • Collection outside an official take-back system in developed countries – individuals go door-to-door or sift through garbage dumps to collect recyclables.

Source: Global E-waste Monitor

The economic impact of not recycling

The fact that we’re poisoning our environment is reason enough for me to drive around with recyclables in my car for as long as it takes until I can dispose of them safely. But for folks who might be willing to brush that worry aside, consider the economic implications of not recycling e-waste.

Electronics contain up to 60 elements from the periodic table including precious metals such as gold, silver, copper, platinum and palladium, and others like iron and aluminum. United Nations University estimates that the total value of all raw materials present in e-waste is about €55 billion ($65 billion).

But there could be even more money to be made in second-hand markets. As an example, the Monitor points to mobile phones. The average selling price globally for a new smartphone in 2016 was €200, while the average price for a used smartphone in 2016 was €118. But the value of the metals and plastics in an average-weight mobile phone was just €2 per phone.

“In 2016, around 435 kiloton (kt) of wasted mobile phones were generated across the globe,” the report states. “This means that the value of raw materials in wasted mobile phones was €9.4 billion. However, if all phones had a longer life span and could enter a second-hand market, the value could be even higher.”

The Global E-waste Monitor suggests that in order to effectively “mine” recoverable materials, we must replace our “take-make-dispose” economic model with a circular economy system that aims to keep the value in products for as long as possible and eliminate waste.

Source: Global E-waste Monitor

Get smart about reducing waste

Smart city programs can help in this effort. At TM Forum’s Smart City InFocus in Yinchuan, Ni Guosheng, Managing Director of I-Cloudbin, explained how his startup is creating a business model around waste classification that does not require government investment. Instead the model offers franchise rights to private companies.

Here’s how it works: I-Cloudbin provides ten trash cans for residents or communities, one for each type of waste. When the bins are full, the resident or community collector puts a QR code sticker on the waste bin. I-Cloudbin receives a notification via mobile phone when bins are full, and they collect the classified waste and deliver it to a transfer center where it’s sorted into recyclables and non-recyclables. The company’s goal is to reduce waste incineration by at least 70 percent.

To read more about I-Cloudbin and other smart city solutions to waste management, check out our Smart City InFocus 2017: Smart governance, life and industry report. It’s free for everyone to download simply by registering on our website.

Another example is the YVR SmartBin. At TM Forum’s Action Week event in Vancouver in September, the winners of the Open Hack developed this internet of things (IoT) platform to collect sensor data from waste bins. The platform uses intelligent asset tags and augments them with sensor data to calculate how much waste-bins are being used.

When citizens see that a bin is overflowing and needs to be emptied, they can scan a QR code on the bin, which opens a browser and lets the citizen request garbage pick-up. Sensor data generates intelligent insights into waste management metrics, such as ratios of trash to compost to recycled material. Eventually, the idea is to use this data could be used to incentivize citizens to reduce waste.

What’s next?

It will take a lot of collaboration and creativity to solve the e-waste management problem, but it’s something we must address to ensure the sustainability of a planet with finite resources and a finite amount of space for waste disposal. We can all make a difference. I’m going to start by making it to the recycling center today to drop off my e-waste! You can start by joining the TM Forum Smart City Program. Contact Carl Piva at [email protected] to learn more.


    About The Author

    Managing Editor

    Dawn Bushaus began her career in technology journalism in 1989 at Telephony magazine, which means she’s been writing about networking for a quarter century. (She wishes she didn’t have to admit that because it probably gives you a good idea of how old she really is.) In 1996, Dawn joined a team of journalists to start a McGraw-Hill publication called, and in 2000, she helped a team at Ziff-Davis launch The Net Economy, where she held senior writing and editing positions. Prior to joining TM Forum, she worked as a freelance analyst for Heavy Reading.

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