The world’s e-waste is a huge problem. It’s also a golden opportunity

e-waste 2019

(Unsplash, 2019)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Guy Ryder, Director-General, International Labour Organization (ILO) & Houlin Zhao, Secretary-General, International Telecommunication Union (ITU)


Humankind’s insatiable demand for electronic devices is creating the world’s fastest-growing waste stream. Some forms are growing exponentially. The United Nations calls it a tsunami of e-waste.

While more electronic devices are part of the problem, they also can be a big part of the solution. A more digital and connected world will help us accelerate progress towards the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), offering unprecedented opportunities for emerging economies.

Get it right and we will see a lot less of our precious minerals, metals and resources dumped into landfill. The benefit to industry and workers as well as the health of people and the environment could be enormous. It is crucial we swiftly employ a more circular vision in this sector.

That’s why tackling this issue head-on is now seen as a crucial task for a number of global agencies, including the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the International Labour Organization (ILO), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and other members of the E-waste Coalition. ITU member states, for instance, recently set a target to increase the global e-waste recycling rate to 30%.

These agencies, along with the World Economic Forum and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, have released a joint report which calls for a new circular vision for the sector. The economic arguments are strong. If we look at the material value of our spent devices, globally this amounts to $62.5 billion, three times more than the annual output of the world’s silver mines, according to data in the new Global E-Waste Report. More than 120 countries have an annual GDP lower than the value of our growing pile of global e-waste.

By harvesting this valuable resource, we will generate substantially less CO2 emissions when compared to mining the earth’s crust for fresh minerals. It makes sense too – there is 100 times more gold in a tonne of mobile phones than in a tonne of gold ore.

Extending the life of electronic products and re-using electrical components brings an even larger economic benefit, as working devices are certainly worth more than the materials they contain. A circular electronics system – one in which resources are not extracted, used and wasted, but re-used in countless ways – creates decent, sustainable jobs and retains more value in the industry.

If ocean plastic pollution was one of the major environmental challenges we finally woke up to in 2018, the ebb and flow of public opinion could and should turn to electronic waste in 2019. The numbers are astounding; 50 million tonnes of e-waste are produced each year, and left unchecked this could more than double to 120 million tonnes by 2050.

It is hard to imagine even 50 million tonnes, yet this is equivalent in weight to all the commercial aircraft we have ever built throughout history, or 4,500 Eiffel Towers, enough to cover an area the size of Manhattan – and that’s just one year’s worth of the e-waste we create.

This mushrooming stream of screens, cables, chips and motherboards is fuelled by our love of devices, many of which are connected to the internet. They now number more than humans and are projected to grow to 25-50 billion by 2020, reflecting plummeting costs and rising demand.

The situation is not helped by the fact that only 20% of global e-waste is formally recycled. The remaining 80% is often incinerated or dumped in landfill. Many thousands of tonnes also find their way around the world to be pulled apart by hand or burned by the world’s poorest workers. This crude form of urban mining has consequences for people’s wellbeing and creates untold pollution.

We already know what the solutions are; it is now a matter of implementing them effectively. Firstly, better e-waste management strategies and green standards can help address this challenge.

By all coming together on the global stage we can create a sustainable industry that generates less waste, and in which our devices are re-used as well recycled in novel ways. This also creates new forms of employment, economic activity, education and trade.

Already 67 countries have enacted legislation to deal with the e-waste they generate. Apple, Google, Samsung and many other brands have set ambitious targets for recycling and for the use of recycled and renewable materials.

It is now time we looked at dematerializing the electronics industry. The rise of device-as-a-service business models could be one avenue. This is an extension of current leasing models, in which consumers can access the latest technology without high up-front costs. With new ownership models, the manufacturer has an incentive to ensure that all resources are used optimally over a device’s lifecycle.

Changes in technology such as cloud computing and the internet of things (IoT) can help with dematerialization. Better product tracking and take-back schemes, which consumers trust, also constitute an important first step to circular global value chains.

It is about changing the direction of the prevailing linear ‘take, make and dispose’ model as a first step towards the circular economy we want to see in the future. However, this requires bold solutions, expertise, incentives and policies.

Entrepreneurs, investors, academics, business and labour leaders and lawmakers will all be needed to make the circular economy work. Innovative business and reverse supply chain models, circular designs, safety for e-waste collectors and ways of formalizing and empowering informal e-waste workers are all part of the picture. Action is needed now.

We don’t want precious minerals and metals to be the new plastic. E-waste is not pollution, nor is it waste – it’s a vital resource we are only just starting to value in full.

Advertising

Advertising

Advertising

Advertising

Advertising

Advertising

the sting Milestone

Featured Stings

Can we feed everyone without unleashing disaster? Read on

These campaigners want to give a quarter of the UK back to nature

How to build a more resilient and inclusive global system

Stopping antimicrobial resistance would cost just USD 2 per person a year

Eurogroup: IMF proposes Germany disposes

What will it take for the world’s third-largest economy to empower women?

Latest tragedy in the Mediterranean claims over 100 lives – UN refugee agency

New energy security framework will help meet growing needs in East Africa, sustainably – UN economic wing

The world is too complacent about epidemics. Here’s how to change

Parental leave: why we can’t wait a century for equal rights for women

The Sichuan Province of China presents its cultural treasure to the EU

Make progress or risk redundancy, UN chief warns world disarmament body

State of the Union 2018: The Hour of European Sovereignty

What Ghana can teach us about integrating refugees

UN appeals for international support as flood waters rise in wake of second Mozambique cyclone

‘Continuing absence’ of political solution to Israel-Palestine conflict ‘undermines and compounds’ UN efforts to end wholesale crisis

These technologies are playing a major role at the Cricket World Cup

There are now four competing visions of the internet. How should they be governed?

In tech-driven 21st century, achieving global development goals requires closing digital gender divide

Working together to end the AIDS-HIV pandemic

UN food agency begins ‘last resort’ partial withdrawal of aid to opposition-held Yemeni capital

3 ways to ensure the internet’s future is creative, collaborative and fair

We can’t tell if we’re closing the digital divide without more data

Safer products: stepping up checks and inspections to protect consumers

How transparency can help the global economy to grow

Plastic is a global problem. It’s also a global opportunity

Crowdfunding: what it is and what it may become

Do we really understand the value of independent journalism?

The Sting’s Team

OECD will follow Canadian proceedings addressing allegations of political interference in foreign bribery prosecution

UN calls for funds to ease ‘deteriorating’ humanitarian situation in Gaza and West Bank

The EU Parliament and the ECB unknowingly or unwillingly fail to protect our financial assets

Young activists do the talking as UN marks World Children’s Day

IFMSA and IPSF on the Health of Migrants and Refugees

Do the EU policies on agro-food smell?

How traditional Islamic giving can play a role in the future of aid

For video game addiction, now read official ‘gaming disorder’: World Health Organization

European Court of Justice to Google: It is #righttobeforgotten but not #righttoberemembered

Young people meet in Malta to shape the future of Europe

Britain heading to national schism on exit from EU

Essential services on verge of shutdown in Gaza as emergency fuel set to run out

An American duel in Brussels: Salesforce against Microsoft over Linkedin deal

How solar is powering the Middle East towards renewables

From violence to dialogue: as land conflicts intensify, UN boosts efforts to resolve disputes through mediation

G20 LIVE: Fact Sheet from the G20 Leaders Summit and key outcomes (G20 Antalya 2015 Summary)

Trump beats Clinton but Americans will learn the hard way that the US can’t change with an election

How drones can help rural Africa take flight

It’s time for cybersecurity to go pro bono

Reducing disaster risk is a good investment, and ‘the right thing to do’, says Guterres

Commission launches debate on more efficient decision-making in EU social policy

Facility for Refugees in Turkey: €127 million to boost EU’s largest ever humanitarian programme

€200 million to promote European agri-food products in and outside the EU

Eurozone plans return to growth

THE ROAD TO GANESHA

Barriers to healthcare: are they real?

Treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons marks first anniversary, but still lacks sufficient numbers to become law

How UN cultural treasures helped set the stage for Game of Thrones

EU-Singapore free trade deal gets green light in Trade Committee

Starbucks and FIAT again under Commission’s microscope: is Europe ready to kick multinationals out of the house?

India can soar in the robot age. This is how

UN Security Council urged to act against ‘worst-case scenario’ Syria’s war-battered Idlib

Draghi’s 2018 compromise: enough money printing to revive inflation and check euro ascent

Draghi cuts the Gordian knot of the Banking Union

EU commits €9 million in humanitarian aid for the most vulnerable families in Myanmar

More Stings?

Speak your Mind Here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s