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Only 20% of e-waste is recycled - and this needs to change, says United Nations

14 Dec 17

A new assessment on global electronic waste (e-waste), policies, and statistics will be released today which seeks to increase awareness and draw attention to the growing issue of e-waste.

The report, The Global E-Waste Monitor 2017, is conducted by International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the United Nations agency for ICT, and in collaboration with the United Nations University (UNU) and the International Solid Waste Association (ISWA).

The assessment shows that in 2016, 44.7 million metric tonnes of e-waste, including products with a battery or plug such as mobile phones and laptops, were generated.

This is an increase of 3.3 metric tonnes (8%) from 2014, and experts foresee a further 17% increase to 52.2 million metric tonnes of e-waste by 2021.

In 2016, only about 20% - or 8.9 million metric tonnes - of all e-waste was recycled.

ITU Secretary-General Houlin Zhao, says “Environmental protection is one of the three pillars of sustainable development and ITU is at the forefront of advocating for the safe disposal of waste generated by information and communication technologies.”

“E-waste management is an urgent issue in today’s digitally dependent world, where use of electronic devices is ever increasing – and is included in ITU’s Connect 2020 Agenda targets.”

The assessment also highlights the significant and growing risk to the environment and human health due to increasing levels of e-waste and its improper and unsafe treatment and disposal through burning or in dumpsites.

Zhao adds, “The Global E-waste Monitor serves as a valuable resource for governments developing their necessary management strategies, standards and policies to reduce the adverse health and environmental effects of e-waste – and will help ITU members to realise this Connect 2020 target.”

The assessment does highlight some positive news: There is now a growing number of countries adopting e-waste legislation.

Currently, 66% of the world population, living in 67 countries, is covered by national e-waste covered by national e-waste management laws, a significant increase from 44% in 2014.

“With 53.6% of global households now having Internet access, information and communications technologies are improving peoples’ lives and empowering them to enhance their social and economic well-being,” says Brahima Sanou, director of the ITU Telecommunication Development Bureau.

“The Global E-Waste Monitor represents an important step in identifying solutions for e-waste. Better e-waste data will help evaluate developments over time, set and assess targets, and contribute to developing national policies.”

Sanou continues, “National e-waste policies will help minimise e-waste production, prevent illegal dumping and improper treatment of e-waste, promote recycling, and create jobs in the refurbishment and recycling sector.”

As e-waste contains rich deposits of gold, silver, copper, platinum, palladium and other high value recoverable materials, low recycling rates can also have a negative economic impact, the report finds.

It estimates that the value of recoverable materials contained in e-waste generated during 2016 was US $55 billion, which is more than the Gross Domestic Product of most countries in the world.

Vice-Rector of the United Nations University, Jakob Rhyner, comments, “The world’s e-waste problem continues to grow.  Improved measurement of e-waste is essential to set and monitor targets, and identify policies.”

“National data should be internationally comparable, frequently updated, published and interpreted.”

“Existing global and regional estimates based on production and trade statistics do not adequately cover the health and environmental risks of unsafe treatment and disposal through incineration or landfilling.”

Additionally, Antonis Mavropoulos, president of the International Solid Waste Association (ISWA), says that we live in a time of transition to a more digital world, where automation, sensors and artificial intelligence are transforming industry and society.

“E-waste is the most emblematic by-product of this transition and finding the proper solutions for e-waste management is a measure of our ability to utilise the technological advances to stimulate a sustainable future and to make the circular economy a reality.”

“We need to be able to measure and collect data and statistics on e-waste, locally and globally, in a uniform way.”

“This report represents a significant effort in the right direction and ISWA will continue to support it as a very important first step towards the global response required.”

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