At least $10 billion worth of gold, platinum and other precious metals are dumped each year in a growing mountain of e-waste that is polluting our planet, according to a new UN report.
According to the UN World E-Waste Monitoring Report, 54 million tons of “e-waste” were accumulated worldwide in 2019, up 21% in five years.
According to the Guardian report, the 2019 figure is equivalent to 7.3 kilograms per man, woman and child on earth, although use is concentrated in wealthier countries.
He added that the amount of electronic waste is growing at a rate three times faster than the world’s population, and that 17% of this waste was recycled in 2019.
The report noted that electronic and electrical goods, from telephones and computers to refrigerators and boilers, had become necessary in modern societies and in terms of life, but often contained toxic chemicals, and increased production and waste were harming human health and the environment and exacerbating the climate crisis.
The report blames the lack of regulation and short-lived products that are difficult or impossible to repair, and that people in northern Europe produced the largest amount of e-waste estimated at 22.4 kg per person in 2019, half of which was in Eastern Europe.
A man digs into a pile of waste in search of copper and other metals from waste da’is in Manila (Reuters)
In Australia and New Zealand, residues amounted to 21.3 kg per person, while in the United States and Canada they were 20.9 kg and 2.5 kg per person, respectively.
The report notes that electronic waste contains materials such as copper, iron, gold, silver and platinum, valued at $57 billion, but most of them are wasted or burned instead of collected for recycling.
Precious metals in waste are estimated at $14 billion, but only $4 billion is currently saved.
Europe had the highest recycling rate in 2019, at 42%, followed by Asia in second place with 12%, but in North and South America and Oceania the rate was 9% and Africa 0.9%.
Some electronic waste in low- and middle-income countries is recycled, but in usually unsafe ways, such as burning electronic circuit boards for copper extraction, releasing highly toxic metals such as mercury, lead and cadum, “causing severe health effects on workers and children who live and play near e-waste activities,” the report said.
The amount of mercury in energy-saving screens, lamps and other electronic waste disposed of is estimated at 50 tons per year, and gases from discarded refrigerators and air conditioners were equivalent to 98 tons of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in 2019.
“E-waste is a very big problem, because the quantity is growing at a rapid pace every year and the level of recycling is not keeping pace,” said the report’s author, Case Baldi of the United Nations University in Bonn.
A new economy”The biggest problem is that in many countries there are no assembly systems, and companies that bring equipment into the market are not accountable for the end of their operational life,” says Megic Hertog of the International Telecommunication Union of the United Nations, but he said the value of the metals dumped was an opportunity.
“If the collection and recycling systems are better, the economies of scale (i.e. the cost advantages that companies get because of their workload) will rise, and I think there are opportunities to create a new economy and new jobs,” Baldi agreed. There will be a lot of income for many people. Recycling will also reduce the environmental impact of new metal exploration: one gram of gold has a huge footprint.”
“Faulty recycling of e-waste represents a significant emerging risk, silently affecting our health and that of future generations,” said Maria Nera of the World Health Organization.
One in four child deaths were caused by pollution, including electronic waste.
“The ever-increasing mountain of electronic waste documented in this report is a global scandal that can be completely prevented,” said Libby Beck of the Green Alliance Research Center.
“It shouldn’t be like this. Products can be designed to last and be repaired, and equally importantly they can be improved. Ensuring that the system keeps electronic products traded will create hundreds of thousands of jobs… There is no excuse for leaving this scandal unaddressed.”