Electronic waste (e-waste)

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Key facts

  • E-waste is the fastest growing solid waste stream in the world (1).
  • In 2019, an estimated 53.6 million tonnes of e-waste were produced globally, but only 17.4% was documented as formally collected and recycled (2).
  • Lead is one of the common substances released into the environment if e-waste is recycled, stored or dumped using inferior activities, such as open burning (3).
  • E-waste recycling activities may have several adverse impacts on human health. Children and pregnant women are particularly vulnerable.
  • ILO and WHO estimate that millions of women and child labourers working in the informal recycling sector around the world may be at risk of e-waste exposure (4).

Overview

Every year millions of electrical and electronic devices are discarded as products break or become obsolete and are thrown away. These discarded devices are considered e-waste and can become a threat to the environment and to human health if they are not treated, disposed of, and recycled appropriately. Common items in e-waste streams include computers, mobile phones, and large household appliances, as well as medical equipment. Every year, millions of tonnes of e-waste are recycled using environmentally unsound techniques and are likely stored in homes and warehouses, dumped, exported or recycled under inferior conditions. When e-waste is treated using inferior activities, it can release as many as 1000 different chemical substances into the environment, including harmful neurotoxicants such as lead (3). Pregnant women and children are particularly vulnerable due to their unique pathways of exposure and their developmental status. The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that 16.5 million children were working in the industrial sector in 2020, of which waste processing is a subsector (4).

Scope of the problem

Electronic waste (e-waste) is the fastest growing solid waste stream in the world, increasing 3 times faster than the world’s population (1). Less than a quarter of e-waste produced globally in 2019 was known to be formally recycled; however, e-waste streams contain valuable and finite resources that can be reused if they are recycled appropriately. E-waste has therefore become an important income stream for individuals and even communities. However, people living in low- and middle-income (LMICs), particularly children, face the most significant risks from e-waste due to lack of appropriate regulations, recycling infrastructure and training. Despite international regulations targeting the control of the transport of e-waste from one country to another, the transboundary movement of e-waste to LMICs continues, frequently illegally. E-waste is considered hazardous waste as it contains toxic materials or can produce toxic chemicals when treated inappropriately. Many of these toxic materials are known or suspected to cause harm to human health, and several  are included in the 10 chemicals of public health concern, including dioxins, lead and mercury. Inferior recycling of e-waste is a threat to public health and safety.

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