Global demand for electronic devices is on the rise and so is the number of used and discarded gadgets. In addition to ocean plastic pollution, staggering data on e-waste has also earned much of the global public attention in the last couple of years. With around 50 million tonnes of e-waste produced every year, it is estimated that this could rise to more than double by 2050 if nothing changes. Not only do piles of discarded electronics pose a serious environmental threat, but their toxic components may also have detrimental human health effects when processed inadequately. Only 20% of global e-waste is recycled through formal channels, whereas a substantial amount of its harmful components, such as mercury, lead, and brominated flame retardants, end up in a number of developing countries, posing a serious risk to health and wellbeing of both workers and wider communities.
Regulation of e-waste
A total of 67 countries have adopted e-waste legislation. Whereas the vast majority of developed countries have relevant legislation in place, most of the recipients of e-waste generated in the developed world lack adequate regulations.
Export of e-waste to developing countries is regulated under the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal. However, large amounts of e-waste are still illegally dispatched from developed to developing countries. It is estimated that 352,474 metric tonnes of electronic waste is illegally shipped from the EU to developing countries each year, most of which is exported to the African region (Nigeria, Ghana and Tanzania).
Lately, the United Nations has been quite vocal about the growing problem of e-waste, often warning of a ‘tsunami of e-waste rolling out over the world’. A number of global agencies have understood the importance of confronting the global e-waste challenge timely and effectively, including the ITU, ILO, UNEP, etc.
In March 2018, UN agencies most active in addressing e-waste signed a ‘Letter of Intent’ aimed at creating a mechanism for coordination and collaboration among stakeholders in tackling e-waste. The document also served as a basis for the creation of the E-waste Coalition, with the purpose of advocacy, knowledge and best practice sharing, as well as the development of a common intervention model for the implementation of e-waste policies at the country level.
The signing of the ‘Letter of Intent’ is a major contribution to current global e-waste management initiatives, coordinated mainly by the United Nations Environment Management Group.
Electronics can also be part of the solution
Apart from being part of the problem, electronics could form part of the solution. An enormous amount of raw materials that are actually reusable are being thrown away on a daily basis, including copper, tin, iron, aluminum, fossil fuels, titanium, gold, and silver. To illustrate, around 32kg of gold, 3,500kg of silver and 2,200kg of bronze — 95 percent copper and 5 percent zinc - were recovered from about from 78,985 tons of electronics and used to make medals for the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo.
The above example is just one of the myriad ways to re-use otherwise discarded electronic components. In this regard, international organisations and other stakeholders are increasingly discussing e-waste in the context of the 'circular economy' concept as opposed to the prevailing yet inefficient “take-make-dispose” economic model.
In January 2019, a report titled 'A New Circular Vision for Electronics – Time for a Global Reboot', composed by seven UN entities along with the World Economic Forum (WEF) and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, was launched at the World Economic Forum in Davos, calling for a more circular electronics system, in which resources are not merely wasted, ‘but valued and re-used in ways that create decent, sustainable jobs’.
As the worth of e-waste is at least $62.5 billion10 annually, exceeding the gross domestic product of most of the countries, the economic benefits of turning to the circular economic model in the electronics and electrical sector are vast. Some of the precious metals, such as gold, are more concentrated in e-waste than in the most productive mines and, apart from immediate economic gains, recovery of these precious resources could lead to reductions in the costs of these goods for consumers.
More importantly, employing a circular economy can generate millions of jobs worldwide. The adequate infrastructure, regulation and policies can create plentiful decent employment opportunities in the field of e-waste management which in turn would accelerate the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, especially in areas of decent work and economic growth (SDG 8) and responsible production and consumption (SDG 12).