How much is electronic waste growing each year globally?
In 2019, approximately 53.6 million metric tons of e-waste was generated. In a publication compiled by UNITAR, it was estimated that by 2030 this number will have increased to 74 million metric tons per year. Thus, the global quantity of e-waste is increasing at an alarming rate of almost 2 million metric tons per year.
In 2019, there was 9.3 million metric tons of formally documented electronic waste collected and recycled, this was only 17.4% of the e-waste recorded to have been generated. This illustrates that recycling activities are not keeping pace with the global growth of e-waste.
Statistics on e-waste collected and recycled are based on data reported by countries. The most recent information available on the e-waste documented as formally collected and recycled worldwide refers on average to the year 2016.
In 2019, the majority of e-waste generated (82.6%) was most likely not formally collected and not managed in an environmentally sound manner. Those flows are usually not documented in a consistent or systematic manner. The lack of data on formally collected and recycled e-waste implies that most of the e-waste generated in 2019 (44.3 Mt) is managed outside the official collection system and, in some cases, is shipped to developing countries. In households of higher-income countries, small-size electronics can end up in normal waste bins and be disposed of with municipal solid waste. Therefore, it is not subjected to proper recycling, resulting in a loss of materials.
The outcome of 44.3 million metric tons of e-waste generated in 2019 is unclear, and its status and the environmental impact differs across multiple regions.
A waste recycling structure is usually developed in countries with high incomes, in addition:
- An estimated 8% of the e-waste is thrown away in waste bins and consequently landfilled or incinerated. Small equipment and small IT is what makes up the majority of this 8%.
- Discarded products can sometimes still be refurbished and reused, and thus are usually shipped as second-hand products from high-income to low- or middle-income countries. However, a considerable amount of e-waste is still exported illegally or under the guise of being for reuse or pretending to be scrap metal. It can be assumed that the volume of transboundary movements of used e-waste ranges from 7-20% of the e-waste generated.
- The majority of undocumented domestic and commercial e-waste is probably mixed with other waste streams, such as plastic waste and metal waste. This means that easily recyclable fractions might be recycled but often under inferior conditions without depollution and without the recovery of all valuable materials. Therefore, such recycling is not preferred.
In middle- and low-income countries, the e-waste management infrastructure is not yet fully developed or, in some cases, is entirely absent. Hence, e-waste is managed mostly by the informal sector. In this case, e-waste is often handled under inferior conditions, causing severe health effects to workers as well as the children who often live, work, and play near e-waste management activities.