Electronic Waste, Recycling and Circular Economy

electronic waste

The recycling of electronic waste generates important benefits for the environment and can also generate business and entrepreneurship opportunities in the environmental sector, since most of the parts and pieces of electrical and electronic devices are recyclable. Some of these such as copper, gold and platinum are traded at good prices and depending on the volume of recycled waste, could generate a good source of income.

However, these wastes also generate environmental risks, since their components also contain dangerous chemical substances, which is why in most countries electronic waste is considered hazardous waste. To continue, it is necessary to define electronic waste and describe the main components that can be recycled.

What is electronic waste?

Electronic waste or electronic waste (“e-waste”), are those that are generated when electrical and electronic equipment or devices stop fulfilling the function for which they were designed and the owner of the same has disposed of them or has the intention to do so. In this category of waste we can find high volume electronic waste such as televisions, washing machines, computers, refrigerators, dishwashers, among others. And also smaller electronic waste such as mobile phones, toys with electrical components, USB sticks, batteries, circuits, cables, etc. In general, electronic waste can be divided into seven categories.

  • Temperature exchange equipment (refrigerators, ovens, etc.)
  • Screens (televisions, monitors, etc.)
  • (Bulbs and lighting devices, etc.)
  • Large equipment (washing machines, dishwashers, etc.)
  • Small equipment (juicers, mixers, etc.)
  • Small technological equipment (USB sticks, mobile phones, etc.)
  • Cables (chargers, electrical cables)

Due to the rapid advance of technology and greater access to electrical and electronic devices, the generation of this type of waste increases every year and is one of the fastest growing in the world.

What is the Generation of Electronic Waste?

According to data from UN Environment, in 2016 approximately 44.7 million tons of Ewaste were generated worldwide and it is expected that in 2021 the global generation will be around 52.2 million tons. In other words, in five years the generation of this type of waste will increase by 16%.

In developed countries, between 1 and 3% of the total municipal waste generated corresponds to e-waste. In the Asian Union its generation increases between 16-28% every five years and currently the generation per capita averages between 14-15 kilograms a year. In other words, the Asian Union generates approximately between 5 and 7 million tons per year of Ewaste.

In developing countries, generation is between 0.01 and 1% of the total municipal waste generated. It is important to specify that the data described above may be less than the actual generation, since in many countries there is no precise control, monitoring and records on the amount of Ewaste that is generated annually.

Electronic Waste Recycling and Circular Economy

The recyclable parts and pieces that we can find in this waste will naturally depend on its composition and type of waste, since the components found in a refrigerator are very different in type and proportion from those found in a mobile phone. However, in general terms, all electronic waste has a high amount of components that are recyclable such as: copper, plastic, steel, rubber, aluminum, glass and also have small amounts of precious metals such as silver, platinum, palladium and gold.

The recycling of these materials allows the reuse of components that are useful, which generates an increase in their life cycle and in the time they remain on the market. This is a clear example of a circular economy, since the waste generated becomes a valuable resource that can be used to generate new materials, business opportunities and benefits for the environment.

Recycling of electronic waste and impacts on the environment

When the recycling of this type of waste is carried out through good environmental practices, it generates important benefits for the environment, since it reduces the amount of natural resources and energy that are required to produce new electrical and electronic devices. However, and as we mentioned earlier, electronic waste is considered hazardous waste in most of the world because in its components it is possible to find dangerous chemical substances such as acids, PCBs and other Persistent Organic Compounds (POPs), mercury, arsenic, lead, chromium and cadmium.

Unfortunately there is an international market that is difficult to regulate and control, where these wastes are transferred from developed countries to countries located in Africa and Asia such as Ghana or Bangladesh. In these countries, only the valuable parts of the waste such as copper, steel, precious metals, etc. are removed. and the rest of the components (including dangerous ones) are stored and abandoned on the ground without any safety measures or thrown into the sea as marine waste . Also a common practice is to burn the parts that are not valuable, which generates environmental impacts and air pollution, due to the emission of dioxins and furans , particulate matter, etc.

Although the export and cross-border movement of these wastes is regulated by the Basel Environmental Convention, bad environmental practices still persist, so the environmental risks that these wastes generate continue to increase.

 Where to Find Statistics on e-waste

If you need data and statistics on electronic waste, we recommend that you explore and access the databases generated by the following international institutions:

  • Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)
  • United Nations Statistics Division.
  • United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE)

Find out more about Ewaste

If you want or need more information, we recommend you download the following technical studies and specialized publications.

  • Manual on Electronic Waste (Part I, Inventory and evaluation).
  • Manual on Electronic Waste (Part II, management measures).
  • Global Monitoring of e-waste in 2017.
  • Risks and Crimes related to Ewaste.