This story is over 5 years old.


You Are Ruining the Environment By Throwing Away Your Smartphones and Computers

Norwegians produce about 62 pounds of e-waste per person — in the United Sates it's 48 pounds.
Photo par Walter Bieri/AP

Even if your phone freezes up every time you open Snapchat, it's far from a piece of junk. The gold, silver, and plastics contained inside it are highly valuable, and last year, the world threw away $52 billion worth of it.

That's one of the findings in a new report from the United Nations University (UNU), a research arm of the UN that examined how much e-waste each country discarded. In 2014, the United States generated 7.8 million tons, more than any other country, accounting for nearly 17 percent of the global total.


Worldwide, humans generated 46 million tons of e-waste — about 13 pounds per person on the planet, according to the report. That's up from 43.8 million tons, or 12.5 pounds per person, in 2013.

This year's mountain of garbage contained 330 tons of gold, more than two million tons of copper, and smaller amounts of other valuable materials like silver, aluminum, and plastic. Less than a sixth of the waste was properly recycled.

"This is kind of shocking news because we could do substantially better," Ruediger Kuehr, head of the UNU Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability, told VICE News. "It's also essential in order to maintain our existing production chains in order to have electronic equipment produced in the future."

'The metals and the plastics and things like that could be put back into productive use, but are just wasting away in landfills.'

The waste also contained potentially toxic substances like mercury, cadmium, and chromium, plus 2.4 million tons of lead glass, which is found in the cathode ray tubes used in older televisions and computer monitors.

In addition to cell phones and laptops, e-waste includes cooling equipment like refrigerators and air conditioners; computer monitors and televisions; and appliances like washing machines, office printers, and toasters.

UNU expects the amount of e-waste to reach 55 million tons by 2018. Per capita, Norway was the worst offender, generating a hefty 62 pounds of waste per person. The US generated 48 pounds per person.


About four billion of the world's seven billion people live in countries with federal laws regarding e-waste, but the laws aren't always enforced. In the United States, the issue has been left up to states, 25 of which have some sort of electronic recycling laws, according to the National Center for Electronics Recycling (NCER).

"There's a lot more we can do to not have them either just sitting in basements for a very long time and they continue to lose value, or being disposed of in landfills and we just lose access to those resources," Jason Linnell, NCER executive director, told VICE News. "The metals and the plastics and things like that could be put back into productive use, but are just wasting away in landfills."

Related: Nearly 300,000 tons of plastic is floating in the world's oceans

Federal legislation isn't expected any time soon, Linnell said, and a new state law hasn't been created since Utah passed a bill in 2011.

But there are other solutions that don't require any legislation at all. Retailers like Best Buy and Staples, for example, have their own programs allowing consumers to recycle old electronics. Some also collect old but still usable phones that can be refurbished and supplied to low-income individuals both in the US and abroad, who couldn't otherwise afford a new phone.

Best Buy says it has recycled more than 500,000 tons of appliances and electronics, while Staples has recycled 6,350 tons.

"They are collecting a lot through their stores and because they are everywhere, it doesn't matter if you're in a legislated state or not," Linnell told VICE News. "Voluntary efforts can be key. Awareness is one first step because in some cases you're in a state where there are some options and people just don't know about them, so they end up throwing it away."

Follow Laura Dattaro on Twitter: @ldattaro