57.4 million tons of electronic waste – and it’s getting more and more

Gold, cobalt, copper or lithium – every year ever larger quantities of these precious raw materials end up unused in the garbage. To today’s international e-waste day appreciate that WEEE forum – International Association of Electronic Waste Producer Responsibility Organizations – the amount of electronic waste for the current year is 57.4 million tons. Two years ago it was just under four million tons less. And by 2030, the annual mountain of electronic waste could even swell to 74 million tons.

The forum sees the reason for the annual increase of three to four percent in the increased use of electronic devices, shorter usage times and severely limited repair options, caused, for example, by more and more permanently installed or glued components.

For Europe stand worldwide the most accurate numbers about e-waste to disposal. In every household, an average of 11 out of 72 electrical and electronic devices are no longer used or are no longer functional. It is true that more than half of the unused large appliances such as dishwashers and refrigerators are at least collected again in the EU. But for smartphones and office electronics, this value only ranks at a modest 14.1 percent (Eurostat 2020). And the recycling rate varies greatly between Member States – in 2017, 81.3 percent of electrical and electronic waste was recycled in Croatia, but only 20.8 percent in Malta.

“As long as citizens do not return, sell or donate their electronic waste, we must continue to mine new raw materials with great damage to the environment,” says Pascal Leroy, Director of the WEEE Forum. He calls for the barriers to being returned to a recycling cycle to be further reduced and for consumers to make recycling even easier.

“E-waste is one of the fastest growing mountains of garbage,” says Virginijus Sinkevičius, EU Commissioner for the Environment, Seas and Fisheries. In order to break this trend, e-waste should be understood much more as a valuable raw material and, at the same time, longer-lasting products should be developed. The CO2 pollution of the climate would also have to be taken into account. Because every ton of electronic waste that is recycled corresponds to the avoidance of around two tons of greenhouse gas.

In fact, especially in the industrialized nations, intensive work is being done on recycling processes under the heading of “Urban Mining”. “A ton of cell phones is richer in gold than a ton of gold ore,” says Rüdiger Kühr, Director of the UN Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) in Bonn. In addition to 24 kilograms of gold, one million cell phones also contain 15 tons of copper, 350 kilograms of silver and 14 kilograms of the precious metal palladium. “If we don’t manage to recycle these materials, we have to extract them from mines and pollute the environment in the process,” says Kühr.

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But for the recycling companies this is always a mathematical example: As long as the newly mined precious metals are cheaper on the market than recycled metals, it is not worth investing in expensive recycling factories. Mandatory requirements from the legislature for higher recycling quotas could, however, help.


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