Less than a sixth of the tens of millions of tonnes of electronic and electrical waste generated across the world last year was properly recycled, reused or treated, a study has found.
There was 41.8 million tonnes of “e-waste”, ranging from washing machines to mobile phones in 2014 – containing an estimated £35 billion in resources such as gold, silver and copper, as well as toxins including ozone layer-depleting gases and mercury.
But just 6.5 million tonnes was sent to proper recycling, reuse or treatment systems, the Global E-Waste Monitor compiled by the United Nations University (UNU) think tank found.
While the US and China produced the most electronic and electrical waste overall, contributing 32% of the total, the UK was one of the biggest producers of e-waste per person – coming fifth behind Norway, Switzerland, Iceland and Denmark.
The problem is growing as a result of rising sales and shortening life cycles of electronic and electrical equipment, which includes any device with a battery or an electric lead, the UNU said.
UN under-secretary-general David Malone said: “Worldwide, e-waste constitutes a valuable ‘urban mine’ – a large potential reservoir of recyclable materials.
“At the same time, the hazardous content of e-waste constitutes a ‘toxic mine’ that must be managed with extreme care.
“The monitor provides a baseline for national policymakers, producers and the recycling industry, to plan take-back systems.”
He said it would also help control the illegal trade in electronic and electrical waste.
“This will eventually lead to improve resource efficiency while reducing the environmental and health impacts of e-waste,” he said.
The waste generated in 2014 contained an estimated 16.5 million tonnes of iron, 1.9 million tonnes of copper and 300 tonnes of gold, which was equal to a little over a tenth (11%) of the world’s total gold production in 2013.
Toxins in the waste including 2.2 million tonnes of lead glass, 300,000 tonnes of batteries – as well as mercury, cadmium, chromium, which can harm health, and 4,400 tonnes of ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).
Around 60% of the waste was a mix of large and small equipment used in homes and businesses, with large items including washing machines, dishwashers, electric stoves and solar panels and smaller items including vacuum cleaners, electric shavers and video cameras.
Just 7% of the waste was made up of mobile phones, calculators, personal computers, printers and other small IT equipment.
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