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Global waste tied to electronic goods up 21 percent over the last 5 years, report says

Global e-waste is up 21 percent in the last five years, according to a new UN report. Photo by Global E-Waste Monitor / United Nations
Global e-waste is up 21 percent in the last five years, according to a new UN report. Photo by Global E-Waste Monitor / United Nations

July 2 (UPI) -- The amount of electronic waste generated by the global economy is surging -- up 21 percent of over the last five years, according to a new report.

The United Nation's Global E-waste Monitor 2020, published Thursday, found household consumers and businesses around the world generated 53.6 million metric tons of e-waste in 2019 -- a record.

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E-waste consists of most any discarded product with a battery or a plug. At current rates, the global economy will produce 74 million metric tons of e-waste by the end of the decade.

According to researchers, just 17.4 percent of e-waste is recycled in a sustainable, eco-friendly way. Currently, the pace of e-waste growth far outstrips the growth of e-waste recycling.

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"The environmental consequences are the release of toxic substances into the environment, as well as green house gas emissions," Kees Baldé, senior program officer at the Sustainable Cycles Program at the United Nations University, told UPI in an email.

In 2019, Asia was the top generator of e-waste, producing 24.9 million metric tons. The Americas produced 13.1 million metric tons of e-waste, while Europe generated 12 million metric tons. African and Oceania produced relatively little total e-waste.

For per capita e-waste production, Europe was the largest producer, followed by Oceania and the Americas.

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"Most e-waste is produced in the richest countries in the world and is due to a very high consumption of electronic goods," Baldé wrote. "Most of those e-waste is generated in households, but can be also found in any sector of the economy."

According to researchers, most all e-waste contains some kind of hazardous material, including flame retardants. However, mercury is the most common toxin found in e-waste products, including lamps, IT goods and cooling and freezing equipment.

Though recycling is often offered as the solution to waste problems, researchers suggest recycling programs won't be sufficient.

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"Our current data shows that even if all e-waste would be recycled, it is not sufficient to produce new electronic goods," Baldé wrote.

"On the short term, I'd say we need to extend lifespans of the products, improve repairability by producers, but also to improve the intensity of the use of our products ... by sharing, but also to get a different driver for our society."

Those are the short-term solutions, but according to Baldé, the problem of e-waste -- like the broader ecological and climate crisis facing the planet -- demands a more drastic economic paradigm shift away from growth-obsessed economic policies.

"On the longer term more radical changes are needed, as the amount of e-waste will be over 70 [million metric tons] in 2030," Baldé wrote.

He said policy makers must focus on increasing quality of life, or broader welfare, instead of promoting consumption and GDP growth.

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