Electronic waste: UN report shows increase of 20 percent in five years

The goal seemed achievable: The United Nations International Telecommunication Union had the plan that at least every second country in the world would legislate or even regulate the handling of electronic waste. To date, there are only 78 countries, but in some regions, the authors of the third UN report on the subject state, “regulation is progressing slowly, enforcement is poor”.

Not even the United States has national electronic waste handling legislation, only 25 states and the capital, Washington, have “passed some form of legislation.” Germany, where a circular economy regulation applies as in the entire EU, has, according to the latest data, collected 837,000 tonnes of the 1.6 million tonnes of e-waste generated here and disposed of in a regulated manner – at least a good half.

E-scrap weighing 350 “Queen Mary 2”

Overall, however, the amount of e-waste continues to grow: in the past five years alone, by 21 percent to the record amount of 53,600,000 tons. That is the central number of the global electronic waste report published on Thursday, which was prepared by the United Nations University (UNU), among others. It’s a lot, the authors write, that the weight of 350 cruise ships is the size of the “Queen Mary 2”. Every year the volume grows by more than two million tons.

A slowdown in growth does not appear in sight: the report predicts that the global e-waste mountain will reach 74 million tons by 2030. In just 16 years, the amount would have almost doubled.

The key figures from the report:

  • With 16.2 kilograms of electronic waste per inhabitant, Europe ranks first in the world in terms of per capita volume. Then comes Oceania with 16.1 kilograms, followed by North, Central and South America (13.3 kilograms) as well as Asia and Africa with 5.6 and 2.5 kilograms per inhabitant. On average, an impressive number, 7.3 kg of electronic waste was thrown away for everyone in the world last year.

  • In terms of weight, small devices were at the top with 17.4 million tons, the scientists attribute the growing e-scrap to the higher consumption of electrical and electronic devices, to short life cycles and few repair options.

Recycling rate: 17.4 percent

The much-vaunted recycling, on the other hand, hardly works: only 17.4 percent of electronic waste was collected and recycled last year. According to the report, gold, silver, copper, platinum and other high-quality, recyclable materials worth at least $ 57 billion have been dumped or incinerated – rather than reused.

The discarded cell phones, air conditioners, screens or energy saving lamps are also the fastest growing part of household waste – and the most problematic. The old devices are a risk to the environment and health because they contain toxic additives or dangerous substances such as mercury, flame retardants or chlorofluorocarbons.

Garbage poses a major health risk, especially for children, says the responsible director of the World Health Organization, Maria Neira: “Every fourth child dies from avoidable environmental pollution.” These children could be saved “if we take measures to protect their health and ensure a safe environment,” said Neira.

Another problem: According to the report, discarded refrigerators and air conditioning systems, the fastest growing part of electrical waste, released an estimated 98 million tons of CO2-equivalent gases into the atmosphere – around 0.3 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

The authors offer little hope of an end to the growing mountains of garbage. However, the report is a joint product in which, in addition to the UNU and the International Telecommunication Union, the UN Environment Program (Unep), the World Health Organization and the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development are also involved. What the partners are doing is documenting the quantities at all – the first step to solving the problem.

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