As the world's insatiable demand for electronic goods rises, so too does the pile-up of e-waste in the world. But why so much waste? The answer: it's largely down to the shortening lifespan of the same electronic products we're obsessed with.
"E-waste" is defined as any device with a battery or electric cord, which the owner doesn't intend to reuse. A report released by the United Nations University on Sunday revealed that in 2014 alone, citizens world over generated an epic 41.8 million tonnes of it. Depressingly, of that, roughly only 6.5 million tonnes were taken in for recycling. As the toxic legacy of our digital age, e-waste stands to affect everything from our health to our environment.
According to the report, the 41.8 million tonnes is equivalent to 1.15 million 40-ton 18-wheel trucks. This is enough to form a line of trucks 23,000 kilometres long—in other words, the distance from New York to Tokyo and back again. The report also estimated that the dumped materials ranging from copper, iron, gold, and silver were worth an estimated $52 billion.
In March, an investigation by Öko-Institut researchers in Germany revealed that both consumer desire and a phenomenon known as "built in obsolescence," when companies purposefully produced goods with parts that will break in a few years, was behind the short life cycles of our electronic goods.
"The hazardous content of e-waste constitutes a 'toxic mine' that must be managed with extreme care."
The bulk of global e-waste in 2014 stems mainly from unwanted kitchen appliances, laundry, and bathroom equipment. Devices such as mobile phones, personal computers, and printers only made up seven percent of last year's e-waste figures, but naturally such devices weigh less.
"Worldwide, e-waste constitutes a valuable 'urban mine'—a large potential reservoir of recyclable materials," said UN Under-Secretary-General David Malone, Rector of UNU in a press release. "At the same time, the hazardous content of e-waste constitutes a 'toxic mine' that must be managed with extreme care," he added.
Hidden in the e-waste are harmful toxins such as lead, mercury, cadmium chromium and ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbon, which can affect the human digestive, neurological and respiratory systems.
For the past two decades, policymakers, producers and recyclers have implemented a "take-back and treatment method," which aims to collect e-waste from owners and process this in professional treatment plants. Despite these efforts, the authors of the report state that a large portion of this e-waste "is not being collected and treated in an environmentally-sound manner."
In a move that defeats the point of recycling, some of the e-waste is shipped out to countries such as China, Ghana, and Guiyu, where according to the report, substandard methods are used to extract materials and components. The sobering images which emerged in a BBC report earlier this month of a toxic lake in Inner Mongolia brimming over with black e-waste sludge just points to the tip of the iceberg.
As well as uncovering the overview of e-waste distribution around the world and its effects, the UN report is pushing for nations to adopt better e-waste collection and treatment systems. The report, said co-author Kees Baldé of the United Nations University, aims to "facilitate cooperation around controlling illegal trade, supporting necessary technology development and transfer, and assisting international organizations, governments and research institutes in their efforts as they develop appropriate countermeasures."
The report points that a drive in rising sales and shorter lifespans for electronic goods will increase global volumes of e-waste, which are likely to rise by more than 20 percent to 50 million tonnes in 2018.