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Global e-waste rises 21% in 5 years and is predicted to double by 2030

A big problem, the organizations say, is that collection and recycling programs don't keep pace with the rising pollution.

Workers sort through e-waste for melting in Guangzhou, China
Workers sort through e-waste for melting in Guangzhou, China (AN/Basel Action Network)

VIENNA (AN) — The world generated 53.6 million metric tons of electronic waste in 2019, more than one-fifth higher than the amount discarded five years earlier, U.N. agencies and a waste management organization reported.

That is roughly equal to 350 cruise ships as big as the U.K.'s Queen Mary 2, which weighs 149,215 metric tons, according to figures released on Thursday.

In 2014, the organizations' tally estimated the total amount of e-waste came to 41.8 million metric tons — equal to 280 Queen Mary 2-sized cruise ships.

The tally predicts discarded e-waste, which include mobile phones, computers and any other products that come with a battery or plug, will rise to 74 million metric tons by 2030, a doubling in 16 years. A big problem, the organizations say, is that collection and recycling programs are not keeping pace with the rising pollution.

Just 17.4% of last year's e-waste was recycled, said the International Telecommunication Union, or ITU; the Germany-based Sustainable Cycles Program, hosted by United Nations University and U.N. Institute for Training and Research, or UNITAR; and the Vienna-based International Solid Waste Association, or ISWA.

"Far more electronic waste is generated than is being safely recycled in most parts of the world," Nikhil Seth, a U.N. assistant secretary-general who serves as UNITAR's executive director, said.

The organizations blame the rising levels of pollution — which releases into the environment metals such as gold, silver, copper, platinum and palladium, along with other valuable materials — on globally high demand for electric and electronic equipment, short life cycles, and few options for consumers to get digital repairs.

They estimated the amount of materials that were burned or dumped rather than reused each year to be worth as much as US$57 billion, an amount equal to Costa Rica's annual GDP, which is ranked 76th highest among nations, according to World Bank figures.

Need for 'a new circular economy'

Some 46% of the e-waste, or nearly 25 million metric tons, came from Asian nations, according to the organizations' Global E-waste Monitor 2020.

The second-biggest amount, 13 million metric tons, came from the Americas, followed by 12 million metric tons from Europe; almost 3 million metric tons from Africa; and less than 1 million metric ton from Oceania.

On a per-capita basis, Europe also ranks highest, with 16.2 kilograms of e-waste per person. Oceania was a close second, at 16.1 kg per person; followed by the Americas, 13.3 kg; Asia, 5.6 kg; and Africa, 2.5 kg.

The biggest share, more than 17 million metric tons, came from mobile phones and other small digital items.

Next were various large items, 13 million metric tons; screens, monitors, small IT and telecom equipment and lamps, more than 12 million metric tons; and cooling and freezing equipment, almost 11 million metric tons.

ITU said it hopes to persuade at least half of the United Nations' 193 member nations to adopt e-waste legislation, but so far 78 nations have adopted an e-waste policy, legislation or regulation, up from 61 in 2014.

"E-waste quantities are rising three times faster than the world's population, and 13% faster than the world's GDP during the last five years," ISWA's president, Antonis Mavropoulos, said, adding that it "creates substantial environmental and health pressures" and shows a need to drastically overhaul the world economy.

"The fourth industrial revolution either will advance a new circular economy approach for our economies," said Mavropoulos, a Greek chemical engineer, "or it will stimulate further resource depletion and new pollution waves."