Environment Counts | E-waste in the environment – an overview of data
Author: Rick Higgins – Published At: 2015-02-23 14:42 – (3576 Reads)
Electronic and electrical waste (e-waste for short) is reported (by the World Bank in 2012) to be growing faster than any other waste stream. Approximately 49 million tonnes of e-waste was generated globally in 2012. Of this the EU generated approximately 20% or 9.9 million tonnes, the USA 19% or 9.4 million tonnes and China 15% or 7.3 million tonnes. Three categories account for almost 90% of the generation of e-waste: large household appliances 42%, information and communication technology equipment 34% and consumer electronics 14%. E-waste comprises more than 5 per cent of all municipal waste – around the same amount as all plastic packaging. Rapid increase in the generation of e-waste is driven by the continually growing global electronics market and a concurrent rise in obsolescence rates of electronic and electrical equipment. E-waste can contain toxic materials which present significant environmental issues. It can also contain components and materials which have potential value when recycled. Reliable comparative e-waste data is not yet available at the global level; see Editor’s comments below regarding data coverage, definitions and reliability.
E-waste and theÂ environment
E-waste has become the fastest growing waste stream globally. Given the continuing rapid growth rate of in manufacturing and use of electronic products and equipment this e-waste growth trend will continue. All electrical and electronic products/equipment manufactured and sold will become part of the e-waste stream.
The negative environmental and health impacts of e-waste are significant. These impacts on the physical environment as well as on the health of those involved in recycling include :
- Landfill, where toxic waste in e-waste can contaminate water sources and ground soil.
- Inappropriate management of e-waste can create toxic environmental impacts.
- Inappropriate incineration of e-waste plastics improperly generates harmful dioxins and other chemicals.
- Persons dismantling electronic and electrical equipment manually may suffer health impacts.
The life time of products from purchase to discard varies considerably. In the US, on average, computers are discarded every 3 to 4 years, TVs 5 to 7 years and cell phones after 2 years.
Given the volumes of e-waste being generated and the content of both toxic and valuable materials in them, e-waste provides a business opportunity of increasing significance both in recovering valuable materials and treating toxic ones . Iron, copper, aluminium, gold and other metals in e-waste constitute over 60% of the volume, while pollutants comprise around 2.70%. Given the high toxicity of these pollutants especially when burned or recycled in uncontrolled environments, the Basel Convention has identified e-waste as hazardous, and developed a framework for controls on transboundary movement of such waste. Global perspectives on e-waste. Widmer et al. Environmental Impact Assessment Review 25 (2005)
Composition ofÂ e-waste
E-waste is a generic term embracing various forms of electric and electronic equipment that have ceased to be of value to their owners. As there is no globally adopted definition of e-waste this presents significant problems in compiling reliable global data and making comparisons among countries.
The EU, however, has agreed on a definition of e-waste which is made up of ten product/equipment types/categories as shown in the following table.
E-waste definition by EU – categories of component products/equipment
|Large household appliances|
|Small household appliances|
|IT and telecommunications equipment|
|Electrical and electronic tools (except of large-scale stationary industrial tools)|
|Toys, leisure and sports equipment|
|Medical devices (except of all implanted and infected products)|
|Monitoring and control instruments|
A list of items under each of the above categories is included in UK WEEE Regulations 2013
A wide range of components made of metals, plastics and other substances are contained in electrical and electronic equipment. For example, a mobile phone can contain over 40 elements including base metals like copper (Cu) and tin (Sn), special metals such as cobalt (Co), indium (In) and antimony (Sb), and precious metals including silver (Ag), gold (Au) and palladium (Pd).
The UNEP StEP report Recycling – From E-waste to Resources provides detailed summaries and analysis of e-waste components and constituent materials.
E-waste Volume â€“ The globalÂ picture
Together the EU, USA and China account for approximately 54% of the 49 million tonnes of global e-waste generated annually in 2012. Of this the EU generated approximately 20% or 9.9 million tonnes, the USA 19% or 9.4 million tonnes and China around 15% or 7.3 million tonnes.
E-waste comprises more than 5 per cent of all municipal waste.
This information is summarised, along with data on other selected countries, in the following table and interactive global World Map. The data and estimates for this information comes from ongoing data assembly and analysis by the UN University with assistance from UNEP, the EU and other collaborating organisations. It represents the best currently available information on e-waste globally. More detailed data sources are available from national organisations (eg US EPA) and the statistics departments and resources of multinational organisations (including Eurostat). The data presented in the StEP (a UNEP program – “Solving the E-waste Problem”) report used in the following table draws on most of the available national and regional data sources. The data is not perfect, but it is the best that is currently available.
E-waste generated in 2012 – World, EU and selected countries
|Country/Region||E-waste – million tonnes/year||kg per capita|
Source: UN University, StEP
Interactive World Map of E-waste
The following interactive StEP e-waste world map provides the opportunity to view e-waste data at the Global level, the Regional European Union (EU) level and at the National level. To use this interactive map, click on the graphic of the World map below and the interactive map will be brought up directly from the StEP site. The data on selected country e-waste generation in the above table is drawn from this source.
Click on image, and then scroll down to access the interactive map.
Source: UN University, StEP
National caseÂ studies
The following 3 case studies provide context at the national and EU levels. Direct comparison across these is somewhat difficult however because of the lack of a single agreed international definition of e-waste.
E-waste data for the US focuses on electronic
products and does not include data on the electrical appliance categories used by the EU. Consequently, direct comparisons of e-waste data between the EU and the US are difficult.
EPA reports that in 2009, 438 million new electronic products were sold, 5 million short tons of electronic products were in storage, 2.37 million short tons of electronic products were ready for end of life management, and 25 percent of these were collected for recycling. This represents a 122 percent increase in the quantity of discarded electronics from1999. See adjacent chart for an indication of the rapid rate of growth.
ELECTRONICS WASTE MANAGEMENT IN THE UNITED STATES US EPA 2011
Between 1995 and 2011, the sales of all five types of appliances increased exponentially in China, due to such factors
as increasing market demand, product availability, rising incomes and technological innovation. The sales of televisions increased by a factor of four, reaching 56.6 million units in 2011. The sales of refrigerators and washing machines grew by an average rate of 12 per cent annually, with 58.1 and 53.0 million units, respectively, sold in 2011. The sales of air conditioners grew ten-fold, reaching 94.8 million units in 2011. Finally, computer sales grew by an average annual rate of 37%, with sales reaching 73.9 million units in 2011. More mobile phones were sold than any other major electrical or electronic product, with 250 million units sold in 2011. E-waste in China: A Country Report
European Union (EU)
The total weight of electrical
and electronic appliances put on the market in the EU in 2005 was approximately 9.3 million tons. This included:
- 44 million large household appliances
- 48 million desktop computers and laptops
- 32 million TVs
- 776 million lamps
Eurostat provides online access to their WEEE (e-waste) data base at Eurostat Data Explorer on Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE)
Recycling e-waste presents significant environmental and health issues, as well as business opportunities. These opportunities can provide the base for profitable businesses centered on recovering valuable materials including precious and strategic metals (eg gold and copper) and components which can be reused and/or modified for reuse. Business centered around e-waste recycling is increasing in many countries.
According to the EPA, recycling 1 million cell phones can recover about 24 kg (50 lb) of gold, 250 kg (550 lb) of silver, 9 kg (20 lb) of palladium, and more than 9,000 kg (20,000 lb) of copper.
In China, 250,000 people are employed in the actual recycling, which typically involves manual dismantling and material recovery. There is also a large â€œinformalâ€ e-waste recycling business which is estimated to employ around 440,000 people. “Informal” refers to people and practices that are outside official institutional and regulatory structures.
The environmental and health impacts of recycling e-waste are assessed and summarised in E-Waste in China: A Country Report The report states those in the “informal” sector generally use substandard processes which lack appropriate facilities to safeguard human health and the environment.
Reliable e-waste data at the global level is not yet available. Moreover, even where good data is available, there are significant issues in comparing data across countries as to date there is no single standard international definition of e-waste. (See Editor’s comments on data.) However, e-waste is a significant and growing factor in the overall global waste situation and the best available estimates of the magnitude and composition are better than no estimates.
Global perspectives on e-waste. Widmer et al. Environmental Impact Assessment Review 25 (2005)
Overview of e-waste, definitions and focus on WEEE material composition.
From E-Waste to Resources – UNEP StEP, 2009
Information and data on e-waste material content. A StEP report on e-waste under Sustainable Innovation and Technology Transfer Industrial Sector Studies.
ELECTRONICS WASTE MANAGEMENT IN THE UNITED STATES US EPA 2011
Includes time series data and summaries of US data on sales and e-waste streams. Methodology and assumptions. Key report for those interested in data on e-waste trends.
E-waste in China: A Country Report
A UN University StEP Green Paper, 2013. Data summaries of source and volume of e-waste in China. Information on collection and recycling of e-waste including the large e-waste informal sector in China.
StEP e-waste world map – UN StEP
Graphical interface via a World map for e-waste volume information by country, region (EU) and globally.
UN University, StEP
StEP (Solving the E-waste Problem) program home page at UN University. A source of information and reports on a range of e-waste issues.
UK WEEE Regulations 2013
List of categories and product/equipment items covered by EU regulations.
Eurostat Data Explorer on Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE)
Access to tables detailing EU and member country e-wast data.
E-waste, the hidden side of IT equipment’s manufacturing and use. UNEP
Slide show summarising UNEP data and e-waste initiatives.
Facts and Figures on E-Waste and Recycling. Electronics Takeback Coalition
Summary of e-waste generation and recycling – US and Global.
Wasting No Opportunity – The case for managing Brazil’s electronic waste
World Bank Project Report, 2012. Case study of e-waste in Brazil.