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Individuals can make a difference to e-waste recovery

International E-Waste Day 2021 on 14 October was marked by an estimate that the worldwide mountain of waste electronic and electrical equipment totals 57.4 million tonnes, a greater weight than that of the Great Wall of China, Earth’s heaviest artificial object.

The problem is growing: last year’s Global E-waste Monitor 2020 reported that an estimated 53.6 million tonnes of e-waste was generated in 2019, a 21% jump in five years and predicted a total of 74 million tonnes by 2030. E-waste generation is growing annually by 2 million tonnes, attributed to higher consumption rates of electronics, shorter product lifecycles and limited repair options.

Leading experts and producer responsibility organisations are calling on households, businesses and governments to back efforts to get more unused or end-of-life plug-in or battery-operated products to facilities where they can be either repaired or recycled. According to estimates, 11 of 72 electronic items, such as phones and televisions, in an average European household are no longer in use or are broken. 

By weight, discarded big appliances such as stoves and refrigerators constitute the largest component of e-waste. These contain steel, copper and aluminium which makes them attractive to those involved in waste crime.

Pascal Leroy, director general of the WEEE Forum, says many factors play a role in making the electrical and electronics sector resource efficient and circular. ‘For example, our member producer responsibility organisations collected and secured responsible recycling of 2.8 million tonnes of e-waste in 2020. But one thing stands out: as long as citizens don’t return their used, broken gear, sell it, or donate it, we will need to continue mining all-new materials causing great environmental damage.’

Leroy said the focus for International E-Waste Day was the role individuals can play in making circularity a reality. ‘This is more important than ever as our Governments go into COP26 to discuss global action to reduce carbon emissions. Every tonne of WEEE recycled avoids around two tonnes of CO2 emissions. If we all do the right thing with our e-waste we help to reduce harmful CO2 emissions.’

Low public awareness of the challenge is illustrated by surveys showing people estimate that 40-50% of e-waste is recycled whereas less than half that (17.4%) was recycled in 2019.  

Magdalena Charytanowicz of the WEEE Forum said International E-Waste Day hoped to reach as many citizens worldwide as possible and urge the proper disposal of end-of-life electronics. ‘Even the smallest action promoting sound e-waste collection, repair, reuse or recycling is welcome in the frame of International E-Waste Day,’ she added.

‘Consumers want to do the right thing but need to be adequately informed and a convenient infrastructure should be easily available to them so that disposing of e-waste correctly becomes the social norm in communities.’

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