‘Invisible’ E-Waste: Almost $10 Billion  in Essential Raw Materials Recoverable in World’s Annual Mountain of Electronic Toys, Cables, Vapes & more

‘Invisible’ E-Waste: Almost $10 Billion in Essential Raw Materials Recoverable in World’s Annual Mountain of Electronic Toys, Cables, Vapes, more

7.3 billion e-toys – car racing sets, electric trains, music toys,  talking dolls, drones, etc. – now discarded annually, an average of  ~1 per person on Earth

Almost 1/6th of all electronic waste by mass – 9 billion kg per year – goes largely unrecognized by consumers as e-waste: cables, e-toys, e-cigarettes, e-bikes,  power tools, smoke detectors, USB sticks, wearable health devices, smart home gadgets, etc.

Discarded vapes alone annually weigh as much as 6 Eiffel Towers 

Every year, unused cables, electronic toys, LED-decorated novelty clothes, power tools, vaping devices, and countless other small consumer items often not recognized by consumers as e-waste amount to 9 billion kilograms of e-waste, one-sixth of all e-waste worldwide.  

This “invisible” category of e-waste in one place would equal the weight of almost half a million 40-tonne trucks, enough to form a 5,640 km bumper-to-bumper line of trucks from Rome to Nairobi. 

Invisible e-waste is the focus of the 6th annual International E-Waste Day on Saturday, Oct. 14.

Many of these devices, such as vapes, gaining in popularity in some societies, contain lithium, which makes their battery rechargeable but also causes serious fire risks when the device is discarded. Moreover, the European Commission considers lithium a ‘strategic raw material’ crucial to Europe’s economy and green energy transition, but supplies are at risk. Most of these materials are thrown away in household bins and elsewhere. 

The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Forum, which organises International E-Waste Day, commissioned the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) to calculate the annual quantities of “invisible” e-waste items in millions of kilograms, in millions of pieces, and in kg and pieces per capita.  

The results, presented in full here https://bit.ly/3PVFLnh, include the following:

(* Note: The UNITAR figures above represent an estimate, and UNU-Key categories cover larger categories like ‘small IT’ where some of the items are ‘invisible’ (like USB sticks) and some others easy to recognise as e-waste, e.g. a keyboard).

Some 3.2 billion kg, 35%, of the roughly 9 billion kg of invisible e-waste are in the e-toy category: race car sets, electric trains, music toys, talking dolls and other robotic figures, biking computers, drones, etc. – in all, some 7.3 billion individual items discarded annually, an average of about 1 e-toy for every man, woman and child on Earth.

Meanwhile, the estimated 844 million vaping devices each year amount to a mountain of e-waste equal to three times the weight of New York’s Brooklyn Bridge or six Eiffel Towers.

The study also found that 950 million kg of cables containing precious, easily recyclable copper were discarded last year – enough cable to circle the Earth 107 times.

Many are stored in homes, perhaps put aside for potential future use.  And many people don’t realise they could be recycled – a huge sleeping resource at a time when demand for copper is forecast to rise 6 fold by 2030  in Europe alone to meet the needs of strategic sectors such as renewable energy, electric mobility, industry, communications, aerospace and defense. 

The value of raw materials in the global e-waste generated in 2019 was estimated at US $57 billion, most of that attributed to iron, copper and gold components.  Of the overall total, 1/6th or $9.5 billion in material value each year, is in the invisible e-waste category. 

Other examples of common, invisible e-waste items in households include toothbrushes, shavers, external drives and accessories, headphones and earbuds, remote controls, speakers, LED lights, power tools, household medical equipment, heat and smoke detectors and many others.

Says Pascal Leroy, Director-General of the WEEE Forum: “Invisible e-waste goes unnoticed due to its nature or appearance, leading consumers to overlook its recyclable potential.”

“People tend to recognise household electrical products as those they plug in and use regularly. But many people are confused about the waste category into which ancillary, peripheral, specialist, hobby, and leisure products fit and how to have them recycled.” (related videos)

Adds Mr. Leroy: “Many people don’t recognize some battery-powered or wired-in products like a smoke detector or smart thermostat as an electrical product because they don’t have a plug. They are also unaware of the hazardous components e-waste contains. If not properly treated, substances like lead, mercury or cadmium can leach into and contaminate the soil and water.”

The WEEE Forum asks everybody to get their e-waste to the appropriate municipal collection facility. 

“A significant amount of electronic waste is hidden in plain sight,” says Magdalena Charytanowicz of the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Forum. “Sadly, invisible e-waste often falls under the recycling radar of those disposing of them because they are not seen as e-waste.  We need to change that and raising awareness is a large part of the answer. Much effort and progress was made around plastic pollution and people are now more conscious about it, especially with a UN treaty on plastics in the works by 2024. We hope the same will occur in the e-waste field.”

In Europe, thanks to 20 years of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) legislation, 55% of e-waste generated is now officially collected and reported. Still, according to the United Nations global e-waste monitor,  other parts of the world show much slower growth rates in its collection, and globally, the reported average collection rate is just over 17%.

Says Virginijus Sinkevičius, European Commissioner for the Environment: “This International E-Waste Day, the EU acknowledges the pressing e-waste challenge and is proactively setting a leadership example. The ongoing expansion in electronic device production and consumption has significant environmental and climate repercussions. Introducing Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) in e-waste legislation two decades ago has laid the groundwork for an innovative ecosystem and advanced technologies. While EPR has elevated environmental standards, our journey is not complete. We must promote a circular economy for electronics, as with other products, not only to decrease our environmental impact but also to fortify the value chain, reducing its reliance on third countries.

E-waste is the world’s fastest-growing waste stream. 

Says Jan Vlak, the president of the WEEE Forum: “Not only producers but all relevant actors, including regulators, consumers, refurbishers, reuse outfits, scrap dealers, retailers and recyclers, must play a role in the EPR system to successfully increase the collection of e-waste. We need to update the EPR principle, make it congruent with circular economy principles and embed this new vision in EU legislation and in a global treaty to harmonise standards and define critical e-waste management obligations.

About

The WEEE Forum a.i.s.b.l. is an international association representing 51 producer responsibility organisations across the globe. Together with our members, we are at the forefront of turning the extended producer responsibility principle into an effective electronic waste management policy approach through our combined knowledge of the technical, business and operational aspects of collection, logistics, de-pollution, processing, preparing for reuse and reporting of e-waste. Our mission is to be the world’s foremost e-waste competence centre excelling in the implementation of the circularity principle.

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