Global E-waste Generation Reaches Record High in 2019, Could Reach 74.7 Million Metric Tons by 2030

In June, the Global E-Waste Statistics Partnership (GESP) released The Global E-waste Monitor 2020,  which examined the quantities, flows, and circular economy potential of waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) across the planet. The report also includes national and regional analysis on
e-waste quantities and legislative instruments.

Cover of Global E-waste Monitor 2020 report

GESP was founded in 2017 by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the United Nations University (UNU), and the International Solid Waste Association (ISWA). Its objectives are to monitor developments of e-waste over time, and help countries to produce e-waste statistics, which in turn will inform policymakers, industries, academia, media, and the general public by enhancing the understanding and interpretation of global e-waste data and its relation to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

According to the report, in 2019, the world generated 53.6 million metric tons (Mt, or Megatoone; see https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php/Glossary:Megatonne_(Mt) and http://www.onlineconversion.com/faq_09.htm for explanations on units) of e-waste. This is an average of 7.3 kg (a little over 16 lbs) per capita, and represents a 21% increase in generation within 5 years. Further, the global generation of e-waste grew by 9.2 Mt since 2014 and is projected to grow to 74.7 Mt by 2030–this means the amount of e-waste generated will almost double in only 16 years.  Just 17.4% of the e-waste generated in 2019 was officially recycled, through formal recycling programs.

Additional findings include:

  • “The fate of 82.6% (44.3 Mt) of e-waste generated in 2019 is uncertain, and its whereabouts and the environmental impact varies across the different regions…In middle- and low-income countries… e-waste is managed mostly by the informal sector.”
  • “Since 2014, the number of countries that have adopted a national e-waste policy, legislation, or regulation has increased from 61 to 78.”
  • “E-waste contains several toxic additives or hazardous substances, such as mercury, brominated flame retardants (BFR), and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), or hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs). The increasing levels of e-waste, low collection rates, and non-environmentally sound disposal and treatment of this waste stream pose significant risks to the environment and to human health. A total of 50 t of mercury and 71 kt of BFR plastics are found in globally undocumented flows of e-waste annually, which is largely released into the environment and impacts the health of the exposed workers.”
  • “Improper management of e-waste also contributes to global warming.” (Note that outside the US,  the term “e-waste” or “WEEE” includes electrical equipment, such as air conditioners and refrigerators, which contain refrigerants that are greenhouse gases, whereas in the US, “e-waste” tends to refer to computers and peripherals, cell phones, printers, televisions, and similar electronics.)
  • “The value of raw materials in the global e-waste generated in 2019 is equal to approximately $57
    billion USD.”

The authors state, “In summary, it is essential to substantially increase the officially documented 17.4% global e-waste collection and recycling rate, especially in view of the rapid growth of this waste stream, which is already projected to reach 74.7 Mt by 2030, combined with increasing recovery of materials towards closed material loops and reducing the use of virgin materials.”

You may download the complete report at https://globalewaste.org/news/surge-global-waste/.

See also this analysis by Justine Calma for The Verge, July 2, 2020:  https://www.theverge.com/21309776/record-amount-ewaste-2019-global-report-environment-health.  Highlights from this article include:

  • “Small electronics — like video cameras, electronic toys, toasters, and electric shavers — made up the biggest chunk of 2019’s e-waste (about 32 percent). The next largest piece of the pie (24 percent) was made up of large equipment like kitchen appliances and copy machines. This group includes discarded solar panels, which aren’t a huge problem yet but could pose issues as the relatively new technology gets older. Screens and monitors created about half as much trash as large equipment but still amounted to close to 7 million metric tons of e-waste in 2019. Small IT and telecommunications equipment like phones added up to about 5 million metric tons of trash.”  
  • “The growing mounds of e-waste are only getting more complex and more toxic, according to Scott Cassel, who founded the nonprofit Product Stewardship Institute. ‘Electronic companies do a great job of designing for pleasure and efficiency, but the rapid change in consumer demand also means that they’re designing for obsolescence. So today’s newest, coolest product becomes tomorrow’s junk,’ Cassel says.”

Porphyrin May Provide Efficient, Cost-Effective Way to Reclaim Gold from E-Waste

An international team of researchers, lead by Yeongran Hong of the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, have demonstrated that a type of organic compound called a porphyrin could be used to retrieve precious metals, such as gold, from electronic waste in an effective, simple, and relatively inexpensive manner. The researchers used porphyrins to create a sorbent–a type of material that can collect molecules of another substance through adsorption, absorption or ion exhance–called COP-180. This compound remains stable in the acidic solutions which are used to remove metals from circuit boards and video screens.

From an article by Bob Yirka on Phys.org: “Testing the polymer showed it to be efficient at sorbing platinum and unexpectedly highly efficient at sorbing gold. A closer look at both showed that platinum dispersed evenly in an acid solution but gold clumped, allowing the sorbent to gather more of it than expected. Testing on real-world e-waste showed it was possible to collect 64 dollars’ worth of gold using only a gram of the sorbent, which costs five dollars to make. The researchers note that the sorbent can also be reused, making it even more economical.

See Yeongran Hong et al. Precious metal recovery from electronic waste by a porous porphyrin polymer, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2020). DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2000606117

See also New polymer easily captures gold extracted from e-waste.

Diagram showing the process of using COP-180 to remove gold from an acid solution used to remove metals from circuit boards.

Mail-In Programs Offer Contactless Electronics Recycling to US Businesses, Residents

As societies across the globe continue to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, many US counties and municipalities, as well as recycling businesses and retail collection points, have either suspended electronics recycling programs or greatly modified procedures to protect the health of their staff and the public.  For example, Best Buy has suspended its popular recycling service, the spring electronics collection in Champaign County (IL) had to be canceled, and although Will County (IL) electronics collections continue to operate, they do so with certain guidelines to minimize interpersonal contact.

In response to our changing realities, some companies are offering new mail-in programs to help residents and businesses responsibly manage their electronics at end-of-life while exercising caution and maintaining social distancing.

TERRA (The Electronics Reuse and Recycling Alliance) offers mail-in residential electronics recycling through its “Done with IT” program. Through this program, consumers can purchase pre-paid mailing labels for a given weight of acceptable items. Unwanted electronics can then be packed in reused boxes (the program does not provide packaging) and shipped via UPS. This service is available throughout much of North America–see their service map for details.  The program works with certified electronics recyclers to ensure data security for participants. The Done with IT program existed pre-pandemic but has continued to expand to new locations during the pandemic.

ERI has recently launched a mail-in recycling box program applicable to both residential and business electronic scrap. Like the Done with IT program, shipments are made via UPS, but unlike the Done with IT program, boxes are shipped flat to the consumer for use, and service is available for all 50 states.  From the press release related to the program:

ERI, the nation’s leading fully integrated IT and electronics asset disposition provider and cybersecurity-focused hardware destruction company currently provides the only NAID, R2, and e-Stewards certified secure-at-home (or office) box program in the United States. The program provides contactless, transparent delivery and pickup. All collected electronics are responsibly recycled and all data is securely destroyed. ERI’s home and business electronics recycling box program is available to individuals and businesses in all 50 states, at every zip code in the country…The boxes are shipped flat directly to the customer with an included return label. Customers can then assemble, fill, and return the boxes whenever convenient, with a simple call to ERI’s logistics partner, UPS.

Of course, other mail-in options for certain types of electronic materials existed before the pandemic and continue. Call2Recycle and Battery Solutions, for example, both offer battery recycling programs. TerraCycle has locations available for its free electronics recycling program.

Consumers should check with their local recycling coordinators to determine whether electronics recycling solutions exist in their area. Mail-in programs such as these may be particularly helpful in areas where local options are limited or temporarily suspended.

SERI Announces Next Version of R2 Electronics Recycling Standard

SERI is the housing body and ANSI-accredited Standards Development Organization for the R2 Standard, which is one of two accredited certification standards available for electronics recycling facilities (the other is e-Stewards; see https://www.epa.gov/smm-electronics/certified-electronics-recyclers#01 for more information on those standards and certified electronics recyclers). SERI recently announced that R2v3, the next version of the R2 Standard, was unanimously adopted by their board, and will be available for download from their web site on July 1, 2020.

See https://sustainableelectronics.org/r2v3 for further information, including Image of document page, highlighting five of the proposed changes in the new R2v3 standard.information on the transition process for R2 certified facilities, the development process for the new standard, public comments, and the differences between the previous and new versions of the standard. Highlights of the proposed changes can also be found at  https://sustainableelectronics.org/sites/default/files/Highlights%20Sheet%20-%20DRAFT%202%20%202019.12.20.pdf (the first page of this three-page document is pictured here).

Large UK Retailers Required to Take-Back Electronics In-Store Starting January 2021

In the January 7, 2020 edition of Resource Magazine, Imogen Benson reported on new requirements for UK retailers regarding waste electronics and electrical equipment, aka WEEE, which includes not only computers and devices that people in the US typically consider “electronics,” but also appliances and white goods–items with a cord, essentially.

From the article:

“The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has approved the fifth phase of its Distributor Takeback Scheme (DTS) for waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE), confirming that the DTS will cease to be applicable for larger retailers by the end of 2020. Under the UK WEEE Regulations, retailers must ensure that their customers are able to return unwanted electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) on a like-for-like basis when they purchase new items. The fourth phase of the DTS, which came to an end on 31 December 2019, allowed retailers to pay a fee to cover these recycling obligations, providing funds for local authority WEEE collection schemes at household waste recycling centres (HWRCs) and civic amenity sites. Under the new system, larger retailers with an excess of £100,000 of turnover in sales of EEE will no longer be able to join the DTS from 31 December 2020, but will instead be obliged to provide in-store take-back facilities from January 2021. Smaller stores and online retailers will be exempt from the changes.”

Read the full story at https://resource.co/article/large-retailers-will-have-offer-store-weee-take-back-2021.

Families of Child Miners Sue Tech Companies Over Human Rights Abuses

In the January 9, 2020 edition of Triple Pundit, Roya Sabri reported on a lawsuit filed by International Rights Advocates (IRA) on behalf of child miners and their families, against several major tech companies, including Apple, Alphabet (parent company of Google), Microsoft, Dell and Tesla. The lawsuit argues that tech companies, profiting from the cobalt supplies which are often supported by child miners’ efforts, should be responsible for the wellbeing of those subsistence cobalt miners.

From Sabri’s article:

The DRC supplies the world with more than 60 percent of its cobalt. A good portion is mined by subsistence miners — independent contractors who take it upon themselves to find and unearth the metal. The miners climb down shafts just wide enough for their bodies with no more than a flimsy headlamp, a hammer and a sack. If a worker gets hurt or dies, buyers take no responsibility and do not offer assistance or support. Reports by Amnesty International and The Washington Post in 2016 revealed these inhumane conditions, but little has changed for the better since then.

Young children are entering this work, often to help their families pay for the essentials needed to survive. The lawsuit’s plaintiff, labeled Jane Doe 1, reports that her nephew began working in mines to pay his $6 a month school fee. Last year, the tunnel where he was digging collapsed. The family never found his body.

The narratives documented by the lawsuit show that this boy’s story is not an isolated incident.

Read the full story at Triple Pundit: https://www.triplepundit.com/story/2020/silicon-valley-giants-sued-over-human-rights-abuses-cobalt-supply-chain/86141.

For the IRA press release related to this lawsuit, see http://www.iradvocates.org/press-release/iradvocates-files-forced-child-labor-case-against-tech-giants-apple-alphabet-dell.

For previous SEI posts related to cobalt in the electronics supply chain, see https://sustainable-electronics.istc.illinois.edu/?s=cobalt.

Upcoming EPA Webinar on Safe Packaging and Transport of Lithium Batteries

On Thursday, January 23, 2020, the US EPA Sustainable Materials Management (SMM) Web Academy will present Safe Packaging and Transportation of Lithium Batteries for Recycling: What You Need to Know. The speaker will be Jordan Rivera of the US Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA).

From the SMM web pages:

Lithium batteries are key to our modern connected world, from our cellphones and computers to our cars (and not just electric cars) and have an increasing role in storing electricity for the electric grid. But, used lithium batteries aren’t exactly like the used alkaline or lead acid batteries that many are used to working with. Because of the battery’s level of charge and the materials that are inside of it, special preparation is needed when shipping these batteries to a refurbisher or recycler. On this webinar participants will learn how to prevent, reduce or eliminate risks of fire or explosions from the improper packaging, marking, labeling, or recycling of lithium batteries.

This SMM webinar will be hosted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and led by a subject matter expert from the Hazardous Materials Safety Assistance Team under the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). The webinar will focus on the safe transportation of lithium batteries for recycling and the applicable regulations that must be followed by battery shippers. It is designed for individuals in the battery recycling industry who need a working knowledge of the regulations, or who provide training to their employees on the applicable regulations. They will include an overview on the latest regulatory requirements on proper lithium battery packaging, marking, and labeling and as well as a basic understanding of how to apply the Hazardous Materials Regulations.”

Register for this webinar at https://register.gotowebinar.com/register/13389156744558092. See https://www.epa.gov/smm/sustainable-materials-management-smm-web-academy-webinar-safe-packaging-and-transportation for additional information. Note the SMM Web Academy typically posts slides and a webinar recording after the presentation has occurred.

E-plastics Could Replace Sand in Self-Compacting Concrete

In the March 29, 2019 edition of Resource Recycling, Jared Paben reported that researchers at the Vellore Institute of Technology in India found they could use granules of high-impact polystyrene from scrap electronics as a replacement for sand in self-compacting concrete. They also studied using fly ash from a power plant as a replacement for cement. They found HIPS and fly ash could be used at levels of up to 30 percent without significantly reducing strength, according to their paper, which was published in February in the journal Buildings. Self-compacting lightweight concrete is generally used on long-span bridges, the paper noted.

Read the full article from Resource Recycling at https://resource-recycling.com/plastics/2019/03/29/how-e-plastics-could-become-feedstock-for-concrete/.  To read the researchers’ article in the February 2019 edition of Buildings, see https://www.mdpi.com/2075-5309/9/2/50/htm. (Buildings 2019, 9(2), 50; doi:10.3390/buildings9020050)

European Recycling Platform UK Has Recycled 1 Million Tonnes of Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment

In late March 2019, the European Recycling Platform (ERP) achieved a significant milestone, having recycled over 1 million tonnes (i.e. metric tons) of Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) in the UK. According to ERP UK, this is the equivalent of preventing the release of 1,400 tonnes of ozone depleting substances. This also represents a savings of 4 billion kWh of primary energy.

ERP infographic

ERP infographic part 2

To read the full press release, see https://erp-recycling.org/uk/news-and-events/2019/03/erp-uk-hits-a-milestone-1-million-tonnes-of-weee-recycled/.

Green Electronics Council Seminar and Workshop: Leveraging Technology and Procurement

On Thursday, June 13, 2019, San Diego State University and the Green Electronics Council are co-sponsoring a full day event focused on sharing lessons learned, tools and best practices with a focus on leveraging procurement and technology towards sustainability. This seminar and workshop is applicable to members of college and university sustainability teams, procurement staff and those responsible for high-performing or “green” buildings on campus.

Participation in this full-day seminar and workshop is free for higher education staff. Registration is required. For the agenda, speaker information, session details, and to register, visit https://greenelectronicscouncil.org/june_13_workshop/.