The World’s E-Waste Has Reached a Crisis Point

The phone or computer you’re reading this on may not be long for this world. Maybe you’ll drop it in water, or your dog will make a chew toy of it, or it’ll reach obsolescence. If you can’t repair it and have to discard it, the device will become e-waste, joining an alarmingly large mountain of defunct TVs, refrigerators, washing machines, cameras, routers, electric toothbrushes, headphones. This is “electrical and electronic equipment,” aka EEE—anything with a plug or battery. It’s increasingly out of control.

As economies develop and the consumerist lifestyle spreads around the world, e-waste has turned into a full-blown environmental crisis. People living in high-income countries own, on average, 109 EEE devices per capita, while those in low-income nations have just four. A new UN report finds that in 2022, humanity churned out 137 billion pounds of e-waste—more than 17 pounds for every person on Earth—and recycled less than a quarter of it.

That also represents about $62 billion worth of recoverable materials, like iron, copper, and gold, hitting e-waste landfills each year. At this pace, e-waste will grow by 33 percent by 2030, while the recycling rate could decline to 20 percent. (You can see this growth in the graph below: purple is EEE on the market, black is e-waste, and green is what gets recycled.)

Courtesy of UN Global E-waste Statistics Partnership

“What was really alarming to me is that the speed at which this is growing is much quicker than the speed that e-waste is properly collected and recycled,” says Kees Baldé, a senior scientific specialist at the United Nations Institute for Training and Research and lead author of the report. “We just consume way too much, and we dispose of things way too quickly. We buy things we may not even need, because it’s just very cheap. And also these products are not designed to be repaired.”

Humanity has to quickly bump up those recycling rates, the report stresses. In the first pie chart below, you can see the significant amount of metals we could be saving, mostly iron (chemical symbol Fe, in light gray), along with aluminum (Al, in dark gray), copper (Cu), and nickel (Ni). Other EEE metals include zinc, tin, and antimony. Overall, the report found that in 2022, generated e-waste contained 68 billion pounds of metal.

Courtesy of UN Global E-waste Statistics Partnership

E-waste is a complex thing to break down: A washing machine is made of totally different components than a TV. And even for product categories, not only do different brands use different manufacturing processes, but even different models within those brands vary significantly. A new washing machine has way more sensors and other electronics than one built 30 years ago.

Complicating matters even further, e-waste can contain hazardous materials, like cobalt, flame retardants, and lead. The report found that each year, improperly processed e-waste releases more than 125,000 pounds of mercury alone, imperiling the health of humans and other animals. “Electronic waste is an extremely complex waste stream,” says Vanessa Gray, head of the Environment and Emergency Telecommunications Division at the UN’s International Telecommunication Union and an author of the report. “You have a lot of value in electronic waste, but you also have a lot of toxic materials that are dangerous to the environment.”

That makes recycling e-waste a dangerous occupation. In low- and middle-income countries, informal e-waste recyclers might go door-to-door collecting the stuff. To extract valuable metals, they melt down components without proper safety equipment, poisoning themselves and the environment. The new report notes that in total, 7.3 billion pounds of e-waste is shipped uncontrolled globally, meaning its ultimate management is unknown and likely not done in an environmentally friendly way. Of that, high-income countries shipped 1.8 billion pounds to low- and middle-income countries in 2022, swamping them with dangerous materials.

High-income countries have some of this informal recycling, but they also have formal facilities where e-waste is sorted and safely broken down. Europe, for example, has fairly high formal e-waste recycling rates, at about 43 percent. But globally, recycling is happening nowhere near enough to keep up with the year-over-year growth of the waste. Instead of properly mining EEE for metals, humanity keeps mining more ore out of the ground.

Still, the report found that even the small amount of e-waste that currently gets recycled avoided the mining of 2 trillion pounds of ore for virgin metal in 2022. (It takes a lot of ore to produce a little bit of metal.) The more metals we can recycle from e-waste, the less mining we’ll need to support the proliferation of gadgets. That would in turn avoid the greenhouse gases from such mining operations, plus losses of biodiversity.

Courtesy of UN Global E-waste Statistics Partnership

The complexity of e-waste, though, makes it expensive to process. As the chart above shows, even an ambitious scenario of a formal e-waste collection rate in 2030 is 44 percent. “There is no business case for companies to just collect e-waste and to make a profit out of this in a sustainable manner,” says Baldé. “They can only survive if there is legislation in place which is also compensating them.”

The report notes that 81 countries have e-waste policies on the books, and of those, 67 have provisions regarding extended producer responsibility, or EPR. This involves fees paid by manufacturers of EEE that would go toward e-waste management.

Of course, people could also stop throwing so many devices away in the first place, something right-to-repair advocates have spent years fighting for. Batteries, for instance, lose capacity after a certain number of charge cycles. If a phone can’t hold a charge all day anymore, customers should be able to swap in a new battery. “Manufacturers shouldn’t be able to put artificial limitations on that ability,” says Elizabeth Chamberlain, director of sustainability at iFixit, which provides repair guides and tools. That includes limiting access to parts and documentation. “Repair is a harm-reduction strategy. It’s not the be-all-end-all solution, but it’s one of many things we need to do as a global society to slow down the rate at which we’re demanding things of the planet.”

At the core of the e-waste crisis is the demand: A growing human population needs phones to communicate and fridges to keep food safe and heat pumps to stay comfortable indoors. So first and foremost we need high-quality products that don’t immediately break down, but also the right to repair when they do. And what absolutely can’t be fixed needs to move through a safe, robust e-waste recycling system. “We are consuming so much,” says Baldé, “we cannot really recycle our way out of the problem.”