Our Burning Planet


The global waste of valuable and toxic electronic equipment – report

A man reacts as he burns a discarded motor to extract copper from it at Dandora dumpsite, Nairobi, Kenya, 05 December 2019 (issued 10 December 2019). EPA-EFE/DAI KUROKAWA

An avalanche of toxic waste electrical and electronic equipment worth several hundred billion rands disappeared down the global drain last year. It was not only a waste of gold and other valuable resources, but it’s also poisoning people and the environment.

A new expert report from United Nations University estimates that a record 53.6 million metric tonnes of waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) was generated last year (roughly the weight of 350 cruise ships the size of the Queen Mary 2).

Rich in gold, copper, iron, platinum (and many other more toxic ingredients), the total WEEE stream was valued at $57-billion (R966-billion) – a sum greater than the Gross Domestic Product of most countries – but only about 17% of this waste was collected or recycled.

Jami Nash of the Electronic Cemetery provides a free collection service for company and household e-waste in Durban. Nash’s company also refurbishes and sells old computers and laptops to extend their lifespan. (Photo: Tony Carnie)

According to the UN’s Global E-waste Monitor report released on 2 July, the total volume of global WEEE has increased by 21% over the last five years and is likely to double within 16 years.

This makes WEEE (also known as e-waste) one of the world’s fastest-growing domestic waste streams, fuelled mainly by high consumption rates of electric and electronic equipment, short life cycles, and poor options for repair.

Lead authors Vanessa Forti, Dr Kees Baldé, Dr Ruediger Kuehr and Garam Bel, say current recycling rates are not keeping pace with the global growth of electro products.

Apart from hazardous metals and chemicals, e-waste can also contain commercially valuable resources — such as the gold-plating on this printed circuit-board. (Photo: Tony Carnie)

“Electrical and electronic equipment has become an essential part of everyday life. Its availability and widespread use have enabled much of the global population to benefit from higher standards of living. However, the way in which we produce, consume, and dispose of e-waste is unsustainable.”

They attribute this growth to higher levels of disposable incomes, growing urbanisation and mobility, and further industrialisation in some parts of the world – leading to an annual average of 7.3kg WEEE per person.



Asia generated the highest quantity of e-waste in 2019 at 24.9 Mt, followed by the Americas (13.1 Mt) and Europe (12 Mt), while Africa and Oceania generated 2.9 Mt and 0.7 Mt, respectively. 

Europe ranked first worldwide in terms of e-waste generation per capita, with 16.2 kg per capita. Oceania was second (16.1 kg per capita), followed by the Americas (13.3 kg per capita), while Asia and Africa generated just 5.6 and 2.5 kg per capita, respectively.

In South Africa, the per capita waste estimate is about 7.1kg

The report says the continent with the highest collection and recycling rate was Europe with 42.5%, Asia ranked second at 11.7%, the Americas and Oceania were similar at 9.4% and 8.8%, respectively, and Africa had the lowest rate at 0.9%.

“The fate of 82.6% (44.3 Mt) of e-waste generated in 2019 is uncertain, and its whereabouts and the environmental impact varies across the different regions.”

The researchers think that the majority of undocumented domestic and commercial e-waste is probably mixed with other waste streams, such as plastic and metal waste. 

“This means that easily recyclable fractions might be recycled, but often under inferior conditions (without depollution and without the recovery of all valuable materials),” they said, noting that this could cause severe health damage to workers as well as to the children who often live, work and play near e-waste management activities.

“E-waste contains several toxic additives or hazardous substances, such as mercury, brominated flame retardants (BFR), and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), or hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs). The increasing levels of e-waste, low collection rates, and non-environmentally sound disposal and treatment of this waste stream pose significant risks to the environment and to human health.”

For example, nearly 50 tonnes of mercury and 71 kt of BFR plastics were likely to flow into e-waste annually, most of which was released into the environment.

“In summary, it is essential to substantially increase the officially documented 17.4% global e-waste collection and recycling rate, especially in view of the rapid growth of this waste stream, which is already projected to reach 74.7 Mt by 2030, combined with increasing recovery of materials towards closed material loops and reducing the use of virgin materials.

The report suggests that some base metals (e.g. gold) used in mobile phones and PCs have a relatively high level of concentration of around 280 grams per ton of e-waste.

It says about 69 elements from the periodic table can be found in WEEE, including gold, silver, copper, platinum, palladium, ruthenium, rhodium, iridium, and osmium. Other resources include critical raw materials such as cobalt, palladium, indium, germanium, bismuth, and antimony and noncritical metals such as aluminium and iron. 

“Within the paradigm of a circular economy, this mine of e-waste should be considered an important source of secondary raw materials. Due to issues relating to primary mining, market price fluctuations, material scarcity, availability, and access to resources, it has become necessary to improve the mining of secondary resources and reduce the pressure on virgin materials. By recycling e-waste, countries could at least mitigate their material demand in a secure and sustainable way.”

From a human safety and pollution perspective the report notes that mercury is highly toxic and is used in fluorescent lights, TVs, measuring and control equipment, and in old switches.

If these appliances are abandoned in open dumpsites as opposed to being properly recycled, mercury could enter the food chain and accumulate in living organisms to damage the central nervous system, thyroid, kidneys, lungs and immune system.

Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) are present in refrigerant circuits and insulating foams of older generations of cooling and freezing equipment, such as refrigerators, freezers, and air-conditioning systems. These molecules have a long lifespan in the atmosphere and react with ozone molecules, generating molecular oxygen that thins the earth’s ozone layer.

Maria Neira, the director of the World Health Organisation’s Environment, Climate Change and Health Department, said: “Informal and improper e-waste recycling is a major emerging hazard silently affecting our health and that of future generations.

“One in four children is dying from avoidable environmental exposures. WHO is pleased to join forces in this new Global E-waste Monitor to allow evidence, information about health impacts and joint solutions and policies to be made available to protect our future generations’ health.” DM/OBP


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

Daily Maverick Elections Toolbox

Download the Daily Maverick Elections Toolbox.

+ Your election day questions answered
+ What's different this election
+ Test yourself! Take the quiz