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Good OM Reading: Global E-Waste Reaches New Levels

April 27, 2015

e-wasteThe amount of global e-waste — discarded electrical and electronic equipment — reached 41.8 million tons last year, according to a new United Nations University report (April 20, 2015). The report provides an unprecedented level of detail and accuracy about the size of the world’s e-waste challenge, ongoing progress in establishing specialized e-waste collection and treatment systems, and the outlook for the future.

The bulk of global e-waste in 2014 (almost 60%) was discarded kitchen, laundry, and bathroom equipment. Personal information and communication technology (ICT) devices — such as mobile phones, personal computers, and printers — accounted for 7% of e-waste last year. The-waste comprised:

  • 12.8 million tons of small equipment (such as vacuum cleaners, microwaves, toasters, electric shavers and video cameras);
  • 11.8 million tons of large equipment (including washer/dryers, dishwashers, electric stoves, and photovoltaic panels);
  • 7.0 million tons of cooling and freezing equipment;
  • 6.3 million tons of screens;
  • 3.0 million tons of small ICT equipment; and
  • 1.0 million ton of lamps.

This e-waste represented $52 billion of potentially reusable resources, yet little of it was collected for recovery, or even treated/disposed of in an environmentally sound manner. Less than 1/6 is thought to have been properly recycled or made available for reuse. While e-waste constitutes a valuable “urban mine” — a potential reservoir of recyclable materials — it also includes a “toxic mine” of hazardous substances that must be (but too-seldom are) managed with extreme care.

The report estimates that the e-waste discarded in 2014 contained 16,500 kilotons of iron, 1,900 kilotons of copper, and 300 tons of gold as well as significant amounts of silver, aluminum, palladium, and other potentially reusable resources. It also contained substantial amounts of health-threatening toxins such as mercury, cadmium, chromium, and ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons. Just two countries — the US and China — discarded 1/3 of the world’s total e-waste.

This valuable report contains several graphics about the recycling process that you can use when teaching Supplement 5, Sustainability in the Supply Chain.

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