Global E-Waste Problem Mounts Following Record-Setting 2019

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2019 was a record-setting year for global e-waste accumulation, following a 21 percent increase since 2014. That's based on a newly-reported release from the Global E-waste Statistics Partnership (GESP). According to GESP, the amount of global e-waste in 2019 grew to 53.6 million metric tons. That's the total amount of waste left behind by discarded phones, computers, appliances, and other electronics.

The problem, the report claims, will also likely only get worse. By current estimates, e-waste is expected to double from 2014 by 2030 at the current rate.

Of the waste that's been measured for 2019 so far, 32-percent was made up of small electronics. For example, video cameras, toys, toasters, and electric shavers are included in that group.

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The trend is, in all likeliness, compounded by the fact that many users buy new smartphones on a yearly basis without properly disposing of them. But it's also well known that the e-waste found in some recycled goods is less likely to be recycled at all, to begin with.

Battery technology, for instance, is notoriously difficult to recycle. But materials such as mercury found in display panels also present a danger to those who handle the technology for recycling. And that poses a unique environmental threat as well.

Beyond small devices, kitchen appliances, copy machines, and solar panels are included in the next largest group. That makes up 24-percent of the e-waste. Devices such as screens and monitors make up half as much as that group at 7-million metric tons.

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Phones and similar telecommunications equipment accounted for 5-million metric tons of e-waste.

There is some benefit to legislation in favor of recycling but not much

Asia created the most e-waste of any region. That was followed by Europe with the highest rate on a per capita basis. The latter region also touts the highest rate of collection and recycling. The rate of growth in the future is expected to correlate directly with areas that see the fastest growth in terms of the middle class too.

That means those regions, where the 'digital divide' is being closed on the economic front, are the most likely to contribute the most over the next ten years. Those are regions where the technology in question is quickly becoming available across divides in economic status.

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Moreover, rapid changes in design requirements, driven by users' needs and demands, will continue contributing to the problem. Summarily, the report indicates, products are being designed with the foreknowledge that they'll be obsolete in short order. And the problem will continue compounding despite legislation about recycling and related incentives. Such legislation covers as much as 71-percent of the world's population.

Moreover, that's despite the fact that there's plenty of incentive to recycle technology and e-waste. As much as $57 billion in gold, copper, iron, and other minerals could be reclaimed from all of the waste in question.

Part of the problem there, the report indicates, is that technology is becoming more intrinsically complex and toxic. So it is becoming more difficult to incentivize recycling and more difficult to recycle e-waste without costs in terms of human lives.

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As per one example provided, the waste in question contains an estimated 50 tons of mercury. The substance causes severe neurological damage with exposure, ultimately making it lethal to handle without proper training and gear.

Global e-waste disposal has gone backward

In total, only around 17-percent of the e-waste in question was officially recycled, according to the report.

That leaves the overwhelming majority of the waste unaccounted for, sent to landfills, or simply incinerated. And all of that is, again, in spite of regulations in place to encourage and enable recycling. Including some more novel approaches. For example, the EU is working to enforce a common charger law in that region. The rule would effectively mandate the use of USB-C charging.

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In turn, that should improve the viability of recycling, at least in terms of smartphone chargers. That could also potentially lead to fewer chargers being included as pack-ins for devices using common charging rates, to begin with.

But, regardless of the new legislation put in place over the past year or more, the report found that the world has backtracked on recycling. In some cases, that's due to a lack of enforceability while in others it comes down to users' decisions when it comes to buying, replacing, and recycling or throwing out electronics. With the 'electrification' of everything from toys to smart home equipment, the report indicates that it's going to take a global effort to move things forward again.