The world’s e-waste problem is getting worse, the UN says

In a new report released this week, the United Nations said the amount of electronics waste worldwide is growing even as efforts to recycle it may be falling even further behind targets. 

The Global E-waste Monitor’s report defines e-waste as “any discarded product with a plug or battery.” This includes phones, computers, e-cigarettes, solar panels and other electronic appliances. It doesn’t include electronic vehicle waste.

The report says in 2022, 62 million tons of waste was discarded. By 2030, totals could reach 82 million tons. 

The waste threatens the state of the environment and the health of humans. Mercury, cadmium, lead and arsenic found in electronic waste can cause neurological damage, cancer and miscarriages.

The report also notes that discarded tech products equals billions of dollars in potentially recoverable materials that are going to waste. Discarded metals in waste — like copper and gold —could be worth more than $90 billion if the materials were properly reclaimed. Right now, recycled rare earth metals only meet 1% of demand.

The growth of the electronics waste problem globally is expected to outpace recycling efforts, even further. 

E-waste is discarded at a rate five times faster than it is recycled, and only a quarter of it was properly handled for recycling in 2022, the U.N. said.

Overall consumption of electronic tech is climbing, and products are sometimes more difficult to repair and may also be trending toward shorter life cycles.

“The latest research shows that the global challenge posed by e-waste is only going to grow,” according to an analysis written by Cosmas Luckyson Zavazava, the head of the ITU telecommunication development bureau. “With less than half of the world implementing and enforcing approaches to manage the problem, this raises the alarm for sound regulations to boost collection and recycling.”

The report says efforts to recycle more e-waste could pay for themselves, especially through avoiding the costs of health problems. If 60% of e-waste were recycled, it could return billions of dollars over the costs of processing, according to the report’s findings.

“We must seize the economic and environmental benefits of proper e-waste management,” according to Vanessa Gray, the head of the Environment & Emergency Telecommunications Division for the ITU’s Telecommunication Development Bureau. She says, “Otherwise, the digital ambitions of our future generations will face significant risks.”