The world generated 62 million tonnes of electronic waste in just one year and recycled way too little, UN agencies warn

Only a few years ago, it would have been difficult to consider a discarded flower pot as electronic waste. But with our continuous technological evolution–including digital, self-watering plant pots–even ordinary products are being transformed. And the amount of e-waste is growing.

The e-waste piles mounting across the globe include any discarded product with a battery or plug–ranging from mobile phones, dishwashers, and small toys, to even the latest generation of flower pots.

The latest Global E-waste Monitor shows that the world produced a record 62 million tonnes of e-waste in 2022. Only 22% of that waste was formally recycled. The same amount of e-waste–including circuit boards, wires as well as the metal, glass, and plastics that encase electronic components–ended up in landfills.

It is time to confront the globe’s electronic waste crisis. All of us–consumers, manufacturers, and governments–need to do better to take on this growing challenge.

As we focus on the world’s larger sustainability and development challenges, we need to come to terms with the fact that e-waste is one of the world’s fastest-growing waste streams.

E-waste not only adds to the overall volume of waste, it also strands billions of dollars of valuable resources–such as gold, copper, and silver–keeping them from being reused. This adds to pollution risks in communities. And it creates the need for additional mining to meet demand. In 2022 alone, $ 62 billion worth of natural resources was trashed without being reclaimed.

What can be done?

Everyone, including those producing and purchasing electronics, should commit to following the “waste hierarchy.” We all need to prevent e-waste by reusing, repairing, and recycling electronic items.

When a mobile phone no longer serves an individual’s needs, it should be given to someone who can make use of it. Those products that can be fixed, should be. And when a piece of equipment reaches the end of its useful life, we need to make certain that it is disposed of in a responsible manner.

Manufacturers must adopt smarter designs and produce products with longer lifespans. Electronics should be made easier to repair. Design elements–such as reducing the amount of glue used on circuit boards–can make them easier to recycle. Engineers can also design products with less structural material such as plastic, which would also reduce waste.

Governments, too, have a critical role to play.

In February, the EU reached an agreement on a new law on the “right to repair” which will encourage manufacturers and resellers to adopt more sustainable business models, expand lifespans, and encourage repair and reuse. More national and regional-level regulations can help us contend with the growing e-waste problem.

By recognizing and addressing the challenge of e-waste through legislation, governments must create fair and economically viable regulatory environments, with clear targets, to drive the transition towards a circular economy for electronics.

Currently, only 42% of countries have e-waste legislation. Even then, only a few properly implement, enforce, and appropriately finance environmentally sound e-waste management.

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU)–a co-author with UNITAR of the Global E-waste Monitor–provides technical assistance to increase the number of countries covered by e-waste legislation globally. The data show that those countries covered by legislation on average have an e-waste collection rate of 25%. For the majority of those with no legislation, the rate remains close to zero.

Electronics are essential to the way our world works. In the case of information and communication technologies, electronic equipment can also be an engine that supports development. One of our critical global tasks is to connect the 2.6 billion people around the world who are not online. They, too, deserve to benefit from digital connectivity.

To ensure that everyone, everywhere is connected, the world will inevitably require new electronic devices, but we also need to generate less waste while ensuring that the critical raw materials mined for today’s electronics are collected and recycled.

Behind the data of the Global E-waste Monitor are billions of people around the world who feel the impact of the growing challenge of e-waste. There’s also our planet, which bears the brunt of mineral extraction and pollution. Fortunately, the research also points the way toward a cleaner, more sustainable future. That future can be ours if we all play our part. 

Cosmas Luckyson Zavazava, Ph.D.,​ is the director of the Telecommunication Development Bureau (BDT) at the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).

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The opinions expressed in commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.

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