How Much E-waste are We Making?

Aug 20 2020
by Nirav Patel
A person's silhouette containing e-waste

A group of researchers across the UNU, UNITAR, ITU, and ISWA[0] recently released The Global E-waste Monitor 2020 report, giving us an up to date look at just how much electronic waste we’re generating around the world.  The numbers are worrying.  We’ve gone from 44.4 million metric tons per year in 2014 to 53.6 million metric tons in 2019.  Even worse, another group of UN-affiliated researchers[1] published a paper called Future E-waste Scenarios that projects a possible increase to 111 million metric tons by 2050.  This assumes a scenario where economic improvements in developing countries result in consumption patterns similar to developed countries along with limited changes to the status quo around product lifecycles.

Numbers that large are hard to make any sense of.  The problem feels more real when you break it down to a personal scale.  In 2019, each of us on average is creating 7.3 kg of e-waste annually, which may grow to around 12.3 kg by 2050.  As a rough approximation, this means that a person born in 1980 will generate around 500kg of e-waste in their lifetime, or about around eight times their own body weight.  We can categorize those numbers further.  Currently, around 17.4% of e-waste is properly recycled (1.4 people’s worth) and 8% is estimated to be improperly disposed of in normal waste bins (0.6 people’s worth).  The remaining 6 people’s worth is just unknown and assumed to often be stored, dumped, incinerated, or re-processed in unsafe and environmentally unfriendly methods.

The UN groups are creating initiatives to boost tracking and reporting and make it easier for governments to create and maintain sound programs around recycling e-waste.  Ultimately though, the best lever we have is to generate less waste to begin with.  We can do that by repairing our products instead of buying new ones and by designing products to be longer lived.  This requires companies and consumers to both embrace repair, upgradeability, and long software support lifetimes.  We can shrink our personal piles of waste, and together, shrink the global one too.

If you’d like to help on this, we’re hiring across a range of roles to fulfill our mission of making consumer electronics products long lived.

[0] Forti V., Baldé C.P., Kuehr R., Bel G. The Global E-waste Monitor 2020: Quantities, flows and the circular economy potential. United Nations University (UNU)/United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) – co-hosted SCYCLE Programme, International Telecommunication Union (ITU) & International Solid Waste Association (ISWA), Bonn/Geneva/Rotterdam.

[1] Future E-waste Scenarios; Parajuly, K.; Kuehr, R.; Awasthi, A. K.; Fitzpatrick, C.; Lepawsky, J.; Smith E.; Widmer, R.; Zeng, X. (2019). StEP (Bonn), UNU ViE-SCYCLE (Bonn) & UNEP IETC (Osaka).

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