UN Report Highlights Environmental, Health Risks from E-Waste, Urges Circular Economy Shift
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The report finds that “there is a trail of e-waste generated from old technology” that needs to be addressed.

Less than 20 percent of e-waste is recycled, resulting in global health and environmental risks and the loss of scarce and valuable natural materials.

The report calls for a circular economy in which resources are valued and reused in ways that create decent, sustainable jobs and minimize environmental impacts.

24 January 2019: Seven UN entities released a report calling for a new vision for e-waste based on the circular economy. The report highlights that annual e-waste production is worth over USD 62.5 billion, underscoring the significant opportunity in moving towards a circular economy.

The report titled, ‘A New Circular Vision for Electronics: Time for a Global Reboot,’ finds that the global economy generates approximately 50 million tonnes of e-waste annually, or approximately six kilograms per person on the planet. Less than 20 percent of this e-waste is recycled, resulting in global health and environmental risks to workers who are exposed to carcinogenic and hazardous substances, such as cadmium, lead and mercury, and to soil and groundwater, which are contaminated by e-waste in landfills, placing food and water systems at risk. Low recycling rates also contribute to the loss of scarce and valuable natural materials: for example, up to seven percent of the world’s gold may be currently contained in e-waste. Under a business-as-usual (BAU) scenario, the UN University (UNU) predicts e-waste could nearly triple to 120 million tonnes by 2050.

“There is a trail of e-waste generated from old technology” that needs to be addressed, the report states. One-half of all e-waste is personal devices, such as smartphones, screens, computers, tablets and TVs, and the rest is household appliances and heating and cooling equipment. Europe and the US generate nearly one-half of global e-waste annually.

Cloud computing and the Internet of Things can support gradual dematerialization of the electronics industry.

The report argues that systematic collaboration with major brands, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), civil society and other stakeholders is necessary to change the system and reduce e-waste. The report calls for a circular economy in which resources are valued and reused in ways that create decent, sustainable jobs and minimize environmental impacts. To capture the global value of materials in the e-waste and circular value chains, the report suggests manufacturer or retailer take-back programmes and better product tracking. The report also recommends developing recycling infrastructure and scaling up the volume and quality of recycled materials to meet the needs of electronics supply chains. Further, the report explains that cloud computing and the Internet of Things (IoT) can support gradual dematerialization of the electronics industry.

In coordination with the report launch, the Global Environment Facility (GEF), UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Nigerian Government announced a USD 2 million investment to launch a formal e-waste recycling industry in Nigeria. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), up to 100,000 people work in Nigeria’s informal e-waste sector. The initiative will help to formalize these workers, providing them safe and decent employment, and capturing the value in Nigeria’s 500,000 tonnes of e-waste. The investment is anticipated to leverage over USD 13 million in additional private sector financing.

The Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy (PAGE) produced the report on behalf of seven UN entities that collaborate on the E-waste Coalition: the ILO; the International Telecommunication Union (ITU); UNEP, the UN Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), the UN Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR), UNU and the Secretariats of the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm (BRS) Conventions, with support from the World Economic Forum (WEF) and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD). The UN launched the report at the WEF in Davos, Switzerland. [Publication: A New Circular Vision for Electronics] [UN News Story] [ITU Press Release] [UNEP Press Release] [UNU Press Release] [GEF News Story] [ITU and ILO Blog Post]


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