The volume of e-waste, created by discarded electrical items, grew by 8% from 2014 to 2016, but only 20% was recycled, according to a report from the UN.
The Global E-Waste Monitor 2017, prepared by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) shows increasing volumes of waste from old electronic items including mobile phones, laptops, televisions, refrigerators and electrical toys. In 2016, 44.7 million metric tonnes of e-waste were generated, an increase of 3.3 million metric tonnes from 2014, and volumes are expected to reach 52.2 million metric tonnes by 2021.
There is a significant risk to the environment and human health due to increasing levels of e-waste, which is also increasing, due to improper and unsafe treatment and disposal through burning or in dumpsites.
"Environmental protection is one of the three pillars of sustainable development and ITU is at the forefront of advocating for the safe disposal of waste generated by information and communication technologies. E-waste management is an urgent issue in today's digitally dependent world, where use of electronic devices is ever increasing - and is included in ITU's Connect 2020 Agenda targets," said ITU Secretary-General Houlin Zhao. "The Global E-waste Monitor serves as a valuable resource for governments developing their necessary management strategies, standards and policies to reduce the adverse health and environmental effects of e-waste - and will help ITU members to realize this Connect 2020 target."
The report was created by the ITU, the United Nations specialized agency for information and communication technology, together the United Nations University (UNU) and the International Solid Waste Association (ISWA).
The assessment also notes positive news - that there is now a growing number of countries adopting e-waste legislation. Currently 66% of the world population, living in 67 countries, is covered by national e-waste management laws, a significant increase from 44% in 2014.
National e-waste policies and legislation play an important role as they set standards, guidelines and obligations to govern the actions of stakeholders who are associated with e-waste.
"With 53.6% of global households now having Internet access, information and communications technologies are improving peoples' lives and empowering them to enhance their social and economic well-being," said Brahima Sanou, Director of the ITU Telecommunication Development Bureau. "The Global E-Waste Monitor represents an important step in identifying solutions for e-waste. Better e-waste data will help evaluate developments over time, set and assess targets, and contribute to developing national policies. National e-waste policies will help minimize e-waste production, prevent illegal dumping and improper treatment of e-waste, promote recycling, and create jobs in the refurbishment and recycling sector."
The assessment also reports that low recycling rates can have a negative economic impact, as e-waste contains rich deposits of gold, silver, copper, platinum, palladium and other high value recoverable materials. It estimates that the value of recoverable materials contained in e-waste generated during 2016 was $55 billion, which is more than the Gross Domestic Product of most countries in the world.
"The world's e-waste problem continues to grow. Improved measurement of e-waste is essential to set and monitor targets, and identify policies," said Jakob Rhyner, Vice-Rector of the United Nations University. "National data should be internationally comparable, frequently updated, published and interpreted. Existing global and regional estimates based on production and trade statistics do not adequately cover the health and environmental risks of unsafe treatment and disposal through incineration or landfilling."
"We live in a time of transition to a more digital world, where automation, sensors and artificial intelligence are transforming industry and society," said Antonis Mavropoulos, President of the International Solid Waste association (ISWA). "E-waste is the most emblematic by-product of this transition and finding the proper solutions for e-waste management is a measure of our ability to utilize the technological advances to stimulate a sustainable future and to make the circular economy a reality. We need to be able to measure and collect data and statistics on e-waste, locally and globally, in a uniform way. This report represents a significant effort in the right direction and ISWA will continue to support it as a very important first step towards the global response required."
Earlier this year ITU, UNU and ISWA joined forces and launched the "Global Partnership for E-waste Statistics". Its objective is to help countries produce e-waste statistics and to build a global e-waste database to track developments over time.
This partnership further aims to map recycling opportunities from e-waste, pollutants and e-waste related health effects, along with building national and regional capacities to help countries produce reliable and comparable e-waste statistics that can identify best practices of global e-waste management. Ultimately, its work will contribute to the achievement of Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) 11.6 and 12.5 by monitoring relevant waste streams and tracking the ITU Connect 2020 target 3.2 on e-waste.