Which country exports the most electronics?

Mountains of electronic waste are growing worldwide

If you take a map of the world and color the regions in which a particularly large amount of electronic waste is produced per capita, it will be dark in Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand. Last year, a US-American received an average of just over 19 kilograms of electronic waste, a German just under 23 and a Norwegian more than 28 kilograms.

In 2019, all people worldwide caused over 53 million tons of electronic waste, consisting of old cell phones, PCs, refrigerators and photovoltaic systems. A weight that corresponds to 5300 Eiffel towers. This is shown by the latest study on electronic waste (Global E-Waste Monitor 2020), which was carried out by the United Nations University, among others.

Even if the owners want to get rid of their devices - they are still not worthless. The intestines often contain materials such as gold, silver, platinum, copper, iron or rare earths - valued at an estimated $ 57 billion.

At first glance, electronic waste - at second glance, a heap of valuable ingredients

Inadequate recycling is damaging to health, the environment and the climate

Nevertheless, less than a fifth of this mountain of rubbish was collected and recycled last year. The rest ended up somewhere else. Partly in normal household waste, where it is then dumped or incinerated. Partly in the hands of dealers who make old devices fit again and sell them in countries with medium or low income levels.

However, a significant amount of e-waste (between seven and 20 percent) is exported illegally or under the guise of reuse or under the pretext that it is scrap. The old devices then end up in garbage dumps or wild landfills in Eastern Europe, Asia or Africa. There they are then often taken apart and burned - with bare hands, without any health and safety measures.

The latter is devastating for human health as well as for the environment and climate. Because in addition to the valuable materials, old electrical appliances also contain highly toxic and environmentally harmful substances. Overall, the global mountain of electronic waste alone contains around 50 tons of mercury, 71,000 tons of brominated flame retardants and 98 million tons of CO2 equivalents, according to the study.

Toxic fumes are produced when the electrical appliances are cannibalized. There is no occupational safety at this garbage dump in Ghana

The mountain of electrical waste will continue to grow

Of all the piles of rubbish in the world, those with electronic waste grow the fastest. "The amount of electronic waste has grown three times faster than the world population and 13 percent faster than the gross domestic product of any country in the last five years," complains Antonis Mavropoulos, President of the International Solid Waste Association.

"We are seeing a growing middle class in many countries around the world that were really typical developing countries a few years ago. And there is a lot of catching up to do here," explains Rüdiger Kühr. He is co-author of the Global E-Waste Monitor 2019 and director of the program for sustainable cycles at the University of the United Nations in Europe.

In addition, more and more devices are being electrified, says Kühr. This ranges from cars to bicycles to board games. And ever more powerful smartphones and computers are pushing old devices from the market at ever shorter intervals. As a result, the global amount of electrical waste could grow to over 74 million tons by 2030, the Global E-Waste Monitor estimates.

There is a lack of consumer awareness

A disaster threatens for the environment and the climate and for the health of many people. It doesn't have to be like that. "The recyclers could come close to a recycling rate of almost 100 percent," says Kühr. Nevertheless, even in Europe, where 65 percent of electronic waste was actually supposed to be collected in 2019, only a good 42 percent was actually recycled.

In Germany, for example, electronic waste is not collected, but has to be brought to collection points by the consumer. Do you expect too much initiative? Kühr suspects that consumers simply lack the awareness that they should dispose of their electronic waste separately. A lot of things simply disappear into drawers, in the attic or end up in normal household waste.

Completely new circulatory systems needed

"You have to think about new economic systems," says Kühr. One approach could be that consumers no longer buy the products themselves, but only the service that the product delivers. The device would remain the property of the manufacturer. This would mean that he would be interested in offering his customers the best service and the necessary equipment, i.e. also driving innovations forward. But he would also be interested in designing his products much more skilfully so that they are easier to repair and also easier to recycle, says Kühr.

Such offers already exist. For example, mobile phones or copiers are made available to consumers and also taken back again if the consumer wants a different service.

Recycling as product advertising

In addition, Kühr demands: "We should be much more active in demanding that companies state how ecological their products are, how high the recycling rate of their devices is, to what extent the material that is used for new products has been recycled and the like." You can get this background information from somewhere, but so far it has not been used as sales arguments.

"I find it astonishing, especially in the climate change discussion, in which the automotive sector or the aviation industry are now using climate-friendly initiatives to advertise that something like this is not an issue at all in the electronic and electrical industry," said Kühr.