A new report from the United Nations University Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability defines e-waste as all items of electrical and electronic equipment and its parts that have been discarded by its owner as waste without the intent of reuse”. This definition includes anything that uses electricity, not just the computing and communications technology that has traditionally been considered to be e-waste. Among the studies findings:
- the global quantity of e-waste generation in 2014 was around 41.8 million tonnes.
- this is comprised of 1.0 Mt of lamps, 6.3 Mt of screens, 3.0 Mt of small IT (such as mobile phones, pocket calculators, personal computers, printers, etc.), 12.8 Mt of small equipment (such as vacuum cleaners, microwaves, toasters, electric shavers, video cameras, etc.), 11.8 Mt of large equipment (such as washing machines, clothes dryers, dishwashers, electric stoves, photovoltaic panels, etc.) and 7.0 Mt of cooling and freezing equipment (temperature exchange equipment).
- according to the report, in Canada in 2014, 725 kilotonnes of e-waste, or just over 20 kilograms per person, were generated while only 122 kilotonnes, or 17%, or just over 3kg per person, found their way to officially reported take back systems.
- common hazardous materials found in e-waste are: heavy metals (such as mercury, lead, cadmium etc.) and chemicals such as CFCs and various flame retardants. In addition to hazardous materials, e-waste also contains many valuable materials (such as iron, copper, aluminium and plastics) and precious metals (like gold, silver, platinum and palladium) that can be recycled. In fact, up to 60 elements from the periodic table can be found in complex electronics, and many of them are recoverable, though it is not always economic to do so presently.
- from the resource perspective, e-waste is a potential “urban mine” that could provide a great amount of secondary resources for remanufacture, refurbishment and recycling. For example, the gold content from e-waste in 2014 is roughly 300 tonnes, which represents 11 per cent of the global gold production from mines in 2013 (2770 tonnes).
GallonDaily suggests that studies such as this are likely to increase the pressure that governments feel to implement extended producer responsibility programs for all categories of broadly defined e-waste. Some manufacturers of appliances have already implemented such initiatives and some appliances are already sent to metal recyclers but in many areas of North America it is still relatively difficult to find such recyclers and many places that accept various types of e-waste are still only accepting electronic waste and not the broader category of electrical waste.
The UN university report, The Global E-waste Monitor 2014: Quantities, flows and resources is available through a link at http://unu.edu/news/news/ewaste-2014-unu-report.html