E-waste is now the fastest-growing waste stream in the world. The UN has called it a tsunami of e-waste. It is estimated this waste stream reached 48.5 million tonnes in 2018; this figure is expected to almost triple if nothing changes. Globally, society only deals with 20% of e-waste appropriately and there is little data on what happens to the rest, which for the most part ends up in landfill, or is disposed of by informal workers in poor conditions.
Yet, e-waste is worth at least $62.5 billion annually, which is more than the gross domestic product (GDP) of most countries. Changes in technology such as cloud computing and the internet of things (IoT) could hold the potential to “dematerialize” the electronics industry. The rise of service business models and better product tracking and take- back could lead to global circular value chains. Material efficiency, recycling infrastructure and scaling up the volume and quality of recycled materials to meet the needs of electronics supply chains will all be essential. If the sector is supported with the right policy mix and managed in the right way, it could lead to the creation of millions of decent jobs worldwide.
In the short-term, electronic waste remains a largely unused, yet growing, valuable resource. Nearly all of it could be recycled. Urban mining, where resources are extracted from complex waste streams, can now be more economically viable than extracting metal ores from the ground. It is largely less energy intensive. Children and women are particularly vulnerable to the health risks of improper e-waste management. It is time to reconsider e-waste, re-evaluate the electronics industry and reboot the system for the benefit of industry, consumer, worker, health of humankind and the environment.