Mountain of Electronic Waste Weighs More Than the Great Wall of China This Year

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We are throwing away more and more electronic waste worldwide. An international group of experts has calculated that the waste mountain of discarded appliances will weigh more than 57 million tons this year. Even the Great Wall of China weighs less, which is the heaviest manufactured object in the world.

 

The figures come from the WEEE Forum, an international partnership that aims to solve the problem of e-waste. The researchers call for electronics to be repaired or recycled instead of throwing them away. According to the organization, barely 17 percent of electronics are currently recycled.

E-waste or electronic waste is the fastest-growing household waste stream globally, with an annual increase of three to four percent. In 2019, this involved 53.6 million tons of worn-out electronics. This increase is because we use more and more gadgets and because the products have an increasingly shorter lifespan. In addition, the manufacturers deliberately limit the repair options to a minimum, according to the forum.

‘For example, one million mobile phones contain 24 kilograms of gold, 16,000 kilograms of copper, 350 kilograms of silver and fourteen kilograms of palladium.’

The enormous mountain of electronic waste threatens public health and the environment, warn the United Nations. This is because they contain dangerous substances such as mercury, damaging the human brain and nervous system. A UN report shows that about fifty tons of mercury end up in the waste stream every year. This waste is then often clandestinely processed in developing countries, where child labourers are exposed to toxic substances.

From an economic point of view, dumping faulty electronics is also a shame. Smartphones, for example, are full of expensive metals. Ruediger Kuehr, the circular economy expert for the UN, speaks of an ‘urban gold mine’ of enormous value:

“A ton of discarded mobile phones is richer in gold than a ton of gold ore,” says Kuehr. ‘For example, one million mobile phones contain 24 kilograms of gold, 16,000 kilograms of copper, 350 kilograms of silver and fourteen kilograms of palladium. These are raw materials that can be recovered and reused in the production process.’

If that doesn’t happen, new supplies will have to be mined, and the environment will be unnecessarily burdened, adds Kuehr. The recovery of gold and other materials also saves a lot of CO2 emissions due to the mining activities that are avoided as a result.

According to the most conservative estimates, the global value of expensive renewable materials in electronics that were dumped or incinerated in 2019 is almost fifty-five billion dollars. That is more than the gross domestic product of many countries.

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