Weighing more than all commercial airliners ever built and worth more than most countries’ GDP, electronic waste poses a developing economic and environmental threat, experts said Thursday, as they established a worldwide initiative to clean it up.
The world produces near 50 million tonnes of e-waste every year as consumers and businesses throw out their old smartphones, computers and home appliances – material worth an estimated $62.5 billion (EUR 55 billion or approximately Rs. 4,40,000 crores).
Only a small number of the refuse, which contains valuable and reusable materials such as metals and rare earth elements vital for electronics, is ever recycled.
Even the United Nations, the World Economic Forum and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, among the wealthy and powerful gathered in Davos this week, also established the first global demand for action to counter what’s the fastest growing waste stream on Earth.
“That is required because if things don’t change by 2050 we’ll have 120 million tonnes annually of e-waste,” Ruediger Kuehr, programme manager at United Nations University and an authority in e-waste, told AFP.
“That’s not too far from today. It will have an impact on our resource availability and it’s affecting the lives of many, many people, particularly in developing nations.”
Only 20 percent of electronics are currently recycled, with countless tonnes end up in landfills, erroneously mixed with alloy waste, or illegally exported to poorer states for a fee.
As plastic waste has become a hot-button issue in recent years, organisers of the telephone for a”global reboot” on e-waste hope authorities, consumers and businesses will research ways of reusing or repurposing electronic equipment to limit the environmental fallout.
Kuehr said better group networks of e-waste would have a significant effect, as would tech users correctly disposing of the gadgets, instead of stuffing them in drawers and cabinets when a new generation comes out.
The ordinary smartphone comprises up to 60 elements, mainly metals, which are prized in the electronics industry for their high conductivity and clarity.
So-called rare earth materials used in batteries and camera lenses are becoming more and more expensive to mine and just exist in a handful of areas on Earth.
Yet there is 100 times more gold, by way of example, at a tonne of mobile phones than at a tonne of gold ore — it is simply a case of producing enough demand for recycled materials, according to Kuehr.
“If recyclers are tasked with recycling close to 100% of materials in electronic equipment they’ll do their best to do so,” he said.
“At the moment they don’t because there’s no demand for it — source costs do still allow for mining at the ground. Technologically it’s doable to recycle virtually all (metals in phones and computers) but it is not economically feasible yet and we need economies of scale”
In addition to old-generation phones and laptops, areas of e-waste are increasing as society becomes increasingly electrified: toys, medical equipment, furniture and many automotive parts today contain some digital material that may be vaporized and harvested.
E-waste has a substantial influence on health: even though it represents only 2 percent of waste in landfill, it accounts for as many as 70% of the toxic material there.
Developing nations like Nigeria and Pakistan export e-waste for a fee, and a casual economy has risen up as people comb through imports for items to resell — possibly exposing them to danger.
“We’re sending our excess equipment to developing nations so as to make just a little bit of cash from it and we see a great deal of ecological and health effects from it,” explained Kuehr.