What is E-Waste? | The Problem with E-Waste

Rapid innovation and lowering costs have dramatically increased access to electronic products and digital technology, with many benefits. This has led to an increase in the use of electronic devices and equipment. The unintended consequence of this is a ballooning of electronic and electrical waste: e-waste. By 2020, this is projected to be between 25- 50 billion. It is estimated this waste stream reached 48.5 million tonnes in 2018. This figure is expected to almost triple if nothing changes.

What is E-waste?

Commonly, e-waste is defined as anything with a plug, electric cord or battery (including electrical and electronic equipment) from toasters to toothbrushes, smart-phones, fridges, laptops and LED televisions that has reached the end of its life, as well as the components that make up these end-of-life products. E-waste is also called waste electrical or electronic equipment, or WEEE for short. Currently, only a few countries have a uniform way of measuring this waste. E-waste comes from many sources including households, businesses and governments.

E-waste may contain precious metals such as gold, copper and nickel as well as rare materials of strategic value such as indium and palladium. A lot of these metals could be recovered, recycled and used as secondary raw materials for new goods. The challenge is the incredible complexity of doing this; a product can be made up of more than 1,000 different substances. E-waste may represent only 2% of solid waste streams, yet it can represent 70% of the hazardous waste that ends up in landfill. Up to 60 elements from the periodic table can be found in complex electronics, such as smart-phones, with many being technically recoverable.


How much e-waste do we generate every year?


According to the Global E-waste Monitor 2017, in 2016, a staggering 44.7 million metric tonnes of e-waste. This is equivalent to just over six kilograms on the planet. Europe and the US alone almost one-half of the total e-waste generated were generated. One-half of all e-waste is personal devices, such as computers, screens, smart-phones, tablets and TVs, and the rest is larger household appliances, as well as heating and cooling equipment. Of this total amount, 36 million tonnes of e-waste are discarded in landfill, burned or illegally traded and treated in a sub-standard way every year.


Australia, China, the EU, Japan, North America and the Republic of Korea produce most of the world’s e-waste. In the United States and Canada, every person produces roughly 20 kg of e-waste annually, while in the EU the figure stands at 17.7kg. Yet the 1.2 billion inhabitants of the African continent each generated an average of just 1.9kg of electronic waste.

In total, 1.3 million tonnes of discarded electronic products are exported from the EU in an undocumented way every year. The illegal movement of e-waste from developed countries to developing countries is a major global challenge. There is a complex web of trans-shipment ports so that e-waste avoids detection by authorities. At the same time, shipments of secondary materials from consumer countries to centres of production with the intention of re-integrating materials into new products would benefit from clear international definitions on secondary materials. Shipments of used products for repair, refurbishment or direct re-use are subject to legislative uncertainties.

The Future of e-waste



  • Resource scarcity, extraction and emission

  • There are concerns about the availability and supply of new materials for electronics and electrical devices in the future. Rising commodity prices have highlighted risks. Yet e-waste contains many high-value and scarce materials, such as gold, platinum, cobalt, rare earths, and high quantities of aluminum and tin. There are many opportunities for better recovery.

    It is uncommon to throw away gold, silver or platinum jewellery, but that is not true of electronic and electrical goods containing the same precious metals; up to 7% of the world’s gold may currently be contained in e-waste. The improper handling of e-waste is resulting in a significant loss of scarce and valuable raw materials, including such precious metals as neodymium (vital for magnets in motors), indium (used in flat panel TVs) and cobalt (for batteries). Almost no rare earth minerals are extracted from informal recycling; these are polluting to mine.

    Yet metals in e-waste are difficult to extract; for example, total recovery rates for cobalt are only 30% (despite technology existing that could recycle 95%). The metal is, however, in great demand for laptop, smartphone and electric car batteries. Recycled metals are also two to 10 times more energy efficient than metals smelted from virgiore. Furthermore, mining discarded electronics produces 80% less emissions of carbon dioxide per unit of gold compared with mining it from the ground. In 2015, the extraction of raw materials accounted for 7% of the world’s energy consumption. This means that moving towards the use of more secondary raw materials in electronic goods could help considerably in reaching the targets set out in the Paris Agreement on climate change.

    Batteries: An electrifying issue

    Like other components of modern electronics, batteries are everywhere. Nearly all portable and movable pieces of technology use them – from hearing aids and toys, to electric vehicles and smart-phones. Yet they are not counted in global e-waste flows. Batteries normally contain one or more of the following nine metals: lithium, cobalt, cadmium, lead, zinc, manganese, nickel, silver or mercury.

    The lithium-ion battery market, the fastest-growing segment, is forecast to reach $100 billion by 2025. Batteries are dropping in cost and demand is rising, driven by demand from smart-phone and electric vehicle usage. By 2030, there could be up to 125 million electric vehicles on the road, up from 3 million in 2018, ushering in a green transport revolution. Currently, the global recycling rate for this market is only 42%. By 2025, the weight of lithium-ion batteries being sold each year will increase five-fold to nearly 5 million tonnes.

    Electric vehicle batteries often contain as much lithium as 1,000 smart-phones. The EU and People’s Republic of China have introduced laws making carmakers responsible for recycling batteries. There is also the potential for a large market for second-life batteries; renewable energy grids of the future will need vast amount of storage, which could be filled by batteries that are too old for cars, but good for static uses.

    Over 11 million tonnes of used lithium-ion batteries are forecast to be discarded by 2030, representing a significant challenge, but also an opportunity given the dramatic rise in demand for materials such as lithium is and cobalt by 11 times. In electronics, device collection remains critical and, as with all components, will be important for the increased collection of batteries for recycling. When a battery has reached the end of its life it will be essential to ensure those batteries are destined for best-in-class recyclers who have the technology to recover the key raw materials. This can be helped by linking services to replace batteries with recyclers and ensuring batteries are not disposed of inappropriately.

    One of the most important materials for battery production is cobalt, yet two-thirds of the world’s cobalt is found in one of the world’s poorest countries, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). About 90% of the cobalt produced in DRC, originates from large-scale and mechanized mining operations. However, 10% is estimated to originate from small-scale mining, often in dangerous working conditions. Amnesty international has reported that child labour is widespread in this informal sector.

    Efforts are under way to address these challenges, which span the lifecycle and value chain of battery technology. Notably, the Global Battery Alliance is a public-private partnership and collaboration platform, which seeks to provide a platform to accelerate these efforts and build a sustainable value chain for batteries. Growing PV solar panel usage and the subsequent e-waste it produces, presents a similar environmental challenge, but also unprecedented opportunities to create value and nurture new end-of-life industries.

    Consumer relationships with electronics

    Like fast fashion and fast food, electronics can involve a rapid turnover in style trends, with revenues dependent on selling the latest products, which are increasingly affordable. In particular, affordability has opened up opportunities in developing countries, for instance mobile money has dramatically increased financial inclusion and given rise to other developmental opportunities. In many cases, secondhand device markets flourish in these countries with products such as laptops and smart-phones having second or third lives. Yet eventually all these smart-phones, tablets, cameras and home gadgets or appliances will become waste.

    One report puts the global consumer electronics market at around $1.1 trillion in 2017, growing at a rate of 6% until 2024, when it will be worth $1.7 trillion. Rising smart-phone adoption rates are fuelling global demand. There is also a major trend towards flat panel TV screens in developed markets and adoption of 3G and 4G in developing economies; electric vehicles are also on the rise. More clothes, furniture, toys, sports equipment and toothbrushes have complex electronic components

    Lack of recycling

    Recycling rates globally are low. Even in the EU, which leads the world in e-waste recycling, just 35% of e-waste is officially reported as properly collected and recycled. Globally, the average is 20%; the remaining 80% is undocumented, with much ending up buried under the ground for centuries as landfill. E-waste is not biodegradable. The lack of recycling weighs heavily on the global electronic industry and as devices become more numerous, smaller and more complex, the issue escalates. Currently, recycling some types of e-waste and recovering materials and metals is an expensive process. The remaining mass of e-waste – mainly plastics laced with metals and chemicals – poses a more intractable problem.

    The waste stream is complex, containing up to 60 elements from the periodic table. In some cases, it contains hazardous chemicals, such as flame retardants, of which some are Persistent Organic Pollutants listed under the Stockholm Convention. There is also confusion in global consumers’ minds in terms of how they handle e-waste because the system is often complex. In many cases, it is treated as normal household waste, but it must be separated. Different streams of e-waste must also be dealt with separately, including batteries, light bulbs, smart-phones, cables or computers.

    This lack of awareness about how to recycle and worries about data security mean there are vast tranches of residual electronics sitting in drawers, garages, bedrooms and offices across the globe waiting to be dealt with.

    Labour, environmental and health issues

    From lead-lined, cathode ray tubes from old TVs, to lead and chromium in circuit boards, e-waste can contain substances that are hazardous to human health if not dealt with properly, including mercury, cadmium and lead. E-waste can pollute water sources and food supply chains. This is particularly true of older products making up today’s e-waste. Regulation and some voluntary targets are driving the phase out of some of the worst offenders in new products. Recycling of valuable elements contained in e-waste, such as copper and gold, has become a source of income, mostly in the informal sector of developing countries. However, basic recycling techniques to burn the plastic from electronic goods leaving the valuable metals (melting down lead in open pots, or dissolving circuit boards in acid) lead to adult and child workers, as well as their families, exposed to many toxic substances.

    In many countries, women and children make up to 30% of the workforce in informal, crude e-waste processing and are therefore particularly vulnerable. When the mothers of tomorrow are exposed to toxic compounds, there are also potential issues. Findings from many studies show increases in spontaneous miscarriages, still and premature births, as well as reduced birthweights and birth lengths associated with exposure to e-waste. Workers also suffer high incidences of birth defects and infant mortality. E-waste compounds are also carcinogenic. Toxic elements are found in the blood streams of informal workers at dumping grounds for e-waste where open burning is used to harvest metals. These dumps have become economic hubs in their own right, attracting food vendors, and are often adjacent to informal settlements, leading to further contamination from the toxic fumes. E-waste can contaminate groundwater, soil and air.

    Today, the total number of people working informally in the global e-waste sector is unknown. However, as an indication, according to the ILO in Nigeria up 100,000 people are thought to be working in the informal e-waste sector, while in China that number is thought to be 690,000. The upgrade and formalization of the industry to one where formal recycling plants provide safe, decent work for thousands of workers is a major opportunity.

    It is also worth considering the effects electronic goods have on climate change. Every device ever produced has a carbon footprint and is contributing to human-made global warming. Manufacture a tonne of laptops and potentially 10 tonnes of CO are emitted. When the carbon dioxide released over a device’s lifetime is considered, it predominantly occurs during production, before consumers buy a product. This makes lower carbon processes and inputs at the manufacturing stage (such as use recycled raw materials) and product lifetime key determinants of overall environmental impact.

    Legislation on e-waste

    A total of 67 countries have legislation in place to deal with the e-waste they generate. This normally takes the form of Extended Producer Responsibility, when a small charge on new electronic devices subsidizes end-of-life collection and recycling. The legislation covers about two-thirds of the global population. However, many countries do not have national legislation on e-waste. In many regions of Africa, Latin America or South-East Asia, electronic waste is not always high on the political agenda, and often not well enforced.

    When it comes to the export of e-waste to developing countries, it is regulated under the Basel Convention on the Control of Trans-boundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal, which has been ratified by 188 countries, other similar conventions exist at a regional level. Even with the convention in place, however, large amounts of e-waste continue to be shipped illegally. The difference in enforcement of conventions and transposing e-waste legislation globally means the regulatory environment can be complex and fragmented.

    Delivering a zero e-waste circular economy

    A system upgrade: Change to the circular economy  

    A circular economy is a system in which all materials and components are kept at their highest value at all times, and waste is designed out of the system. It can easily be thought of as the opposite of today’s linear economy. It can be achieved through different business models including product as a service, sharing of assets, life extension and finally recycling. To build a circular economy for electronics there are different aspects to consider.


    Products need to be designed for reuse, durability and eventually safe recycling. Many companies have made global commitments to designing waste out of the electronics value chain and others have worked hard to design hazardous materials out of their products. These kinds of experiences must be shared across the industry, creating a pre-competitive, open-source space for collaboration. Embracing durable designs can ensure that electronic devices are kept in circulation for longer. Configurations should have a product’s end-of-life in mind, as well as encouraging disassembly and reuse. Taking a “systems approach” and redesigning the entire electronic device lifecycle for a circular economy could also create more value in the system.

    Buy-back or return systems

    Increasingly producers of electronics could offer buy-back or return systems for old equipment. Incentivizing the consumer financially and guaranteeing their data will be properly handled. Expertise in user experience could be employed to make the end-of-life process smoother.

    Advanced recycling and recapturing

    Companies and governments could work towards creating a system for closed-loop production in which all old products are collected and then the materials or components reintegrated into new ones. This will take new financial incentives and policy levers as well as private-sector leadership. The recycling sector will also need an upgrade; in some cases, recycled materials are not of sufficient quality for use in new electronic products. Countries also have targets related to this. In China, there is a target for 20% recycled content in all new products by 2025.

    Durability and repair

    Post-consumer recycling of electrical and electronic goods will not be enough to combat the issue. Society must be able to benefit from well designed, long-living products. Longevity can be further increased when equipment is maintained, repaired, and refurbished. Companies should be ready to repair equipment they sell, something that has also been mandated by law in some jurisdictions. Second-hand electrical goods are worth more than individual components, which again are worth an order of magnitude more than the materials alone. Therefore, second use and harvesting components represent a major opportunity.

    Urban mining

    It is time for companies to start investing heavily around the globe in technology that can help extract metals and minerals from e-waste. Already one recycler in China produces more cobalt than the country mines in one year. A circular economy for electronics would maximize the amount of valuable e-waste that moves back into the production of new electronic products and components. To get there, more countries, especially those in the developing world, will need to adopt e-waste legislation, such as extended producer responsibility and build a formal recycling industry. Not only will this mitigate some of the worst effects, but it will also create a huge opportunity for economic growth and decent work.

    Reverse logistics

    When a product can no longer be used, the materials will need to be collected and sent back to be reintegrated into production. This is known as a reverse supply chain. Unlike a forward supply chain, however, the movement and processing of materials are not subsidized by the value of a finished product laden with features. Instead they must rely on the value of the raw materials only and therefore demand a highly efficient and economical reverse supply chain model that is safe and responsible, and ensures materials do not flow into the informal sector.