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‘E-waste’ a £34bn missed opportunity

New research has revealed that almost 42 million tonnes of waste electronic and electrical equipment was produced globally in 2014, wasting around £34 billion in recoverable materials.

New research has revealed that almost 42 million tonnes of waste electronic and electrical equipment (WEEE) was produced globally in 2014, wasting around £34 billion in recoverable materials.

The Global E-Waste Monitor, compiled by the United Nations University (UNU), used a harmonised methodology to monitor global quantities of WEEE – or ‘e-waste’ – in an “unprecedented level of detail”.

Due to rapid innovations in technology and shortening electronic product lifespans, e-waste is becoming increasingly problematic for waste management infrastructure, with the amount produced already set to hit 50 million tonnes per year by 2018.

‘Urban mine’

It also represents a huge missed opportunity for improving resource efficiency, with the research estimating that less than one-sixth of e-waste was diverted to recycling or reuse channels in 2014.

“Worldwide, e-waste constitutes a valuable ‘urban mine’ – a large potential reservoir of recyclable materials,” said David Malone, UN under-secretary general and rector of UNU. 

According to the monitor, the e-waste produced in 2014 contained 16.5 million tonnes of iron and steel, 8.6 million tonnes of plastics, 1.9 million tonnes of copper, 220,000 tonnes of aluminium and 1,400 tonnes of precious metals. In total, the value of these materials is calculated to be around £34 billion.

Nearly 60 per cent of this waste was made up of larger equipment used in homes and businesses, such as vacuum cleaners, microwaves, washing machines and dishwashers, solar PV panels, lamps and temperature exchange equipment. 

The most wasteful nations per capita are all in Northern Europe, with the UK coming fifth behind Norway, Switzerland, Iceland and Denmark. 

Take-back systems

To help increase the recovery and reuse of e-waste, the UNU recommends that e-waste streams are diverted away from standard waste disposal channels and are instead captured by formal ‘take-back’ systems, whereby the waste is collected by producers or designated organisations and then treated to recover valuable materials. 

“The monitor provides a baseline for national policymakers, producers and the recycling industry to plan take-back systems”, Malone added.

“This will eventually lead to improved resource efficiency while reducing the environmental and health impacts of e-waste.”

Take-back systems are becoming increasingly attractive for large manufacturers looking to cut their waste production and create more resilient revenue streams. 

Trade-in and leasing

For example, Samsung is investigating the feasibility of leasing and servicing its electronic equipment in the private rental market and is also collaborating with WRAP to develop a trade-in business model as part of WRAP’s new Electrical and Electronic Sustainability Action Plan (esap), a voluntary agreement which has been signed by 50 major manufacturers.

Speaking to edie.net, Bill Skeates, head of sustainability at Samsung Europe, said: “Trade-in is a big area we are looking at, because we already have the infrastructure across Europe for servicing. 

“This year is also the first we are working with WRAP to look at the potential of taking back other people’s products and our own and trading them for upgrades.”