E-waste is referred to as almost any discarded household or business item with circuitry or electrical components with a power or battery supply.
Matching growth in ICT networks and services, latest estimates show that the world now discards approximately 53.6 million Mt of e-waste per year – only 17.4% is formally collected and recycled. In 2019, the fate of 44.3 Mt of generated e-waste was unknown – this waste was either not documented, being discarded in landfill, burned or illegally traded and treated in a sub-standard way. With the current approach to end-of-life management of e-waste, globally, a transition to a circular economy for ICT equipment in particular, is proving challenging.
Up to 69 elements from the periodic table can be found in electrical and electronic equipment (EEE). These include critical raw materials and precious metals. E-waste can result in the unnecessary loss of scarce and valuable natural materials, through failure to recycle other less toxic, but high-value rare materials, such as gold, platinum, and cobalt, putting pressure on the limited natural resources available.
For example, one ton of discarded mobile phones or PCs can contain up to 280 grams of gold, as well as high levels of base metals. E-waste contains toxic additives or hazardous substances, commonly including heavy metals such as mercury, cadmium and lead, and chemicals such as brominated flame retardants which can pollute land, air and aquatic environments and pose significant health risks, especially if treated inadequately.
Improper e-waste management can also contribute to global warming, especially since refrigerants in some temperature exchange equipment are potent greenhouse gases. A total of 98 Mt of CO2-equivalents were potentially released into the atmosphere globally in 2019 from the discarded fridges and air conditioners that were not managed in an environmentally sound manner. More and more products such as smart fridges, freezers and smart washing machines are increasing their connectivity capabilities, in the growing Internet of Things (IoT). Furthermore, products that were not traditionally electrified may often now incorporate circuitry, including wearable electronics.
In addition, e-waste puts the health and lives of some of the world's poorest adult and child workers who dispose of e-waste at risk, by exposing them to toxins and poisoning.