13/12/2017 15:02 GMT | Updated 13/12/2017 16:44 GMT

The World Generated 4,500 Eiffel Towers' Worth Of Electronic Waste Last Year

And we don't know where most of it ended up.

Athar Hussain / Reuters
Ali Raza, 21, a scrap worker breaks apart a computer to retrieve metal in a makeshift workshop in Karachi, Pakistan.

The world produced 44.7 million metric tons of electronic waste in 2016, according to a new United Nations report. To put that in perspective, that’s equivalent to the weight of 4,500 Eiffel Towers. Laid out in a line, the waste would stretch from New York to Bangkok and back ―28,160km.

Global e-waste ― discarded electronic and electrical goods such as mobile phones, laptops, televisions, refrigerators and electrical toys – rose 8 percent from 2014 to 2016, according to the Global E-waste Monitor 2017 report, published on Wednesday. 

“One of the key findings is the amount of electronic waste is growing, and that’s both in terms of absolute value as well as per inhabitant”, said Vanessa Grey of the UN’s International Telecommunication Union and co-author of the report.

The falling cost of electrical items is one of the reasons for the increase, according to the UN, as it means devices are more affordable around the world. There are now more mobile phone subscriptions than people in the world and around half of the world population (3.6 billion) uses the internet.  

The biggest e-waste culprits per capita were Australia and New Zealand, according to the report, where 17.3kg of waste was produced per person and only 6% was formally collected and recycled. Europe is the second largest producer, generating 16.6kg per inhabitant, although it had the highest collection rate (35%).

E-waste is the world’s fastest growing waste stream and the bad news is its growth shows no sign of abating. The report predicted e-waste would increase a further 17% by 2021, reaching 52.2 million metric tons.

United Nations
Sorting e-waste in China.

Despite these quantities, very little is recycled. Just 20% was reported as being collected and recycled in 2016. The report estimates that 4% is thrown into normal waste. But there is much less clarity on where remaining 76% ends up.

“It’s probably dumped, it’s burned, it’s traded or it’s recycled, but then very likely under inferior conditions so that there’s obviously huge impacts on the environment but also on human beings,” said Grey. And of course, there are the old gadgets languishing in people’s drawers.

The impacts of e-waste are stark. It often contains toxic metals such as lead which leach into the environment polluting soil and water supplies. It also releases toxic fumes which have major health implications for the often informal waste pickers in low income countries who dismantle the waste with little, if any, safety equipment.  

There’s also an economic loss from dumping e-waste. The UN calculates the recoverable materials lost – which include gold, silver and copper – amount to $55 billion. 

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that even collecting 50% of mobile phones in Europe at the end of their life and re-using, remanufacturing or recycling them would save over $1 billion (£750 million). “The electronics industry operates on an outdated, wasteful take-make-dispose model,” said a spokeswoman for the Foundation. 

Professor Lenny Koh of Sheffield University Management School, who has researched the economics of electronic waste, said understanding the value of this waste stream is not just about resource use and efficiency, “but also about being able to reduce our reliance on virgin materials, conflict materials, and focusing on more renewable resources.”

The UN report calls for new business models which, for example, rent rather than sell mobile phones to customers and ensure they extract value from the old phones once they are returned.

Joost de Kluijver, director of Netherlands based social enterprise, Closing the Loop, pointed to Apple, with its focus on urban mining, and Fairphone, the maker of ethical modular phones, as examples of businesses making progress on the issue but said this knowledge needs to be shared globally to make a real difference. 

Action is also needed at government level. While 66% of countries have national e-waste legislation, according to the report, it’s not translating into action. This is partly down to a serious lack of data. Only 41 countries collect official data on e-waste, said Gray, adding: “If you don’t know the basic statistics, well, then you really don’t know what’s happening.” 

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