5 things you need to know about e-waste

Never have we been in possession of as many electronic gadgets as now, in this brave new world or ours. But what happens to them when they stop working? All too often... not that much.

1. How much e-waste do we generate globally?

Worldwide, we are now producing around 50 million tons of electronic and electrical waste annually according toa new joint report published by seven UN agencies. In terms of weight, that's equivalent to all the commercial airliners ever built.

Health | 04.04.2018

If we continue to consume and discard at the current rate, the United Nations University (UNU) predicts an increase of up to 120 million tons in the next 30 years.

A hidden source of cash?

2. How much of what we produce is recycled?

Only 20 percent of our e-waste is formally recycled

According to a new report by the UN and supported by the World Economic Forum and World Business Council for Sustainable Development, millions of people around the world work in the informal e-waste sector.

Nature and Environment | 16.08.2018

Given the toxins in electronic waste, this often has negative health implications.

3. What happens to the remaining 80 percent?

Some of it ends up in landfill, which leads to toxins leaching into the environment. Some is incinerated, but this generates emissions. 

Clouds of choking smoke from the burning of discarded electrical goods

4. Which countries generate most e-waste?

An earlier UNU study found that the US and China produced the most electronic waste in 2016, with 7.2 and 6.3 million tons respectively. It classified e-waste as discarded products with a battery or a plug.

Next came Japan with 2.1 million tons.

5. How valuable is e-waste?

It's valuable. Experts say a ton of e-waste contains as many as 100 times more gold than a ton of gold ore.

The estimated material value of our current e-waste is more than $62.5 billion (€55 million) annually. 

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China cleans up electronic recycling

Mountains of old electronics

Guiyu in southern China was long considered the world's biggest electronics recycling site. And it was a highly polluting one at that. More than 5000 small family-run businesses recycled everything from screens to motherboards.

China cleans up electronic recycling

A million little pieces

Poor workers did much of the recycling — dismantling, sorting and processing the components by hand. This work often took place in homes or by the side of the road, and frequently with little or no protective gear.

China cleans up electronic recycling

Burning plastic and worse

But the process was very dirty. People burned parts or used toxic chemicals to separate precious metals and other materials from the components. The air was filled with toxins and the ground water became so polluted that it wasn't suitable for drinking.

China cleans up electronic recycling

A modern facility

In 2013, the provincial government stepped in. It built a large industrial park on the city's outskirts. If recyclers wanted to stay in business, they had to move to the facility, which was equipped with modern air and water filtration systems to protect the environment.

China cleans up electronic recycling

Smaller margins, cleaner air

By 2015, the facility was open for business. Having to rent space there cut into the profit margins of smaller companies. Some went bust, but the upside was that air quality improved dramatically. The streets are cleaner too, say residents.

China cleans up electronic recycling

No more foreign trash

This year, China decided it no longer wanted to be the world's dumping ground and banned imports of 24 kinds of waste. As a result, there are no more discarded and broken electronics arriving in Guiyu from Europe or the United States. Well, not officially.

China cleans up electronic recycling

Illegal imports

For years, China neglected local waste because so much was flowing in from abroad. It arrived better sorted than domestic trash and was more economical to process. Even now, some recyclers are turning to more lucrative illegally imported electronic waste.

China cleans up electronic recycling

Time to start separating the garbage?

But now Beijing plans to invest billions in household waste treatment over the next few years to deal with its domestic trash problem. According to local media reports, Chinese authorities are trying to encourage people to sort their trash properly at home.