The world has a growing problem with e-waste. Electronics are everywhere in our daily lives, from smartphones and computers to cookware, toys and portable devices.
The WEEE Forum (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Forum), an international non-profit organization, estimates that more than 5 billion mobile phones will be thrown away this year alone.
If these phones were piled on top of each other, the stack would be 50,000 km high, an eighth of the way to the Moon.
According to WEEE, households across the EU own an average of 74 electronic products, 17 of which sit unused in our drawers and cupboards. Most of these are small consumer electronics such as headphones, cables, external hard drives and smartphones.
“People tend not to realize that all these seemingly insignificant items have a lot of value and that together globally they represent massive volumes,” said WEEE CEO Pascal Leroy. in a statement on the International Day of Electronic Waste (October 14).
They are also the most likely to be thrown away and destined for landfills or incineration instead of being properly recycled.
Europeans are the main producers of e-waste
The International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a United Nations agency, closely monitors e-waste. In his last global e-waste reportestimated that in Europe, one person generated more than 16 kg of e-waste in 2019, the world’s highest rate of e-waste generation per capita.
Oceania was second (16.1 kg per capita), followed by the Americas (13.3 kg per capita), while Asia and Africa generated 5.6 and 2.5 kg per capita respectively.
However, Europe also has the highest e-waste collection and recycling rate in the world at 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%.
But data compiled by the EU shows that most member states fall short of the bloc’s 65% collection target.
There are also large differences in performance between countries, as shown in this map (hover over a country to see its recycling rate).
Croatia leads the way with an e-waste recycling rate of over 83%. Electronics sellers in the country are required to accept e-waste that customers bring.
The rules say so that if a retail store has more than 400 square meters dedicated to electrical and electronic devices, the collection of small electronic waste (up to 25 cm) must be guaranteed free of charge and without the obligation to purchase new material.
It is also possible for anyone to request the free removal of all types of electronic waste anywhere in the country.
At the other end of the spectrum, Malta has one of the worst rates in the EU, with only 20.8% of e-waste recycled.
A recent UN report he blamed it mainly on the absence of state-of-the-art e-waste collection infrastructure, competition from scrap collectors and lack of enforcement by the authorities.
Electronic waste that is not recycled ends up accumulating in our homes, or thrown in the bin to be buried or incinerated.
Knowing that e-waste often contains toxic substances, it is a problem for both the environment and public health. And although Europe ranks first in terms of e-waste generation per capita, developing countries end up paying the price.
However, electronics are still full of valuable resources such as rare earth materials, copper and cobalt, and campaigners say much more needs to be done to reuse them.
‘Right to repair’: how to tackle our e-waste problem
One option to reduce our e-waste is to repair broken electronics.
From March 2021the EU requires manufacturers of washing machines, dishwashers, refrigerators and televisions to make parts available to professional repairers for 10 years.
Officials are now working to expand this “right to repair” to smartphones, laptops and other small devices.
A Resolution of the European Parliament approved in April this year calls for products to be designed “so that they last longer, can be repaired safely, and their parts can be easily accessed and removed.”
France has also introduced one mandatory “repairability” rating. – from 0 to 10 – on a range of household appliances to inform consumers about how easy it is to find spare parts and fix them if they break.
The index already applies to smartphones, laptops, televisions, lawnmowers and washing machines, and will soon be extended to dishwashers, vacuum cleaners and pressure washers.
Earlier this year, in a major blow to Apple, the EU ruled that a only mobile charging port it will be used for mobile phones, tablets and cameras by 2024. The move should finally help many consumers untangle the frustrating tangle of cables that have built up in their drawers.