E-waste grew 8 percent in just 2 years. Just one-fifth was recycled.

A growing global middle class and our tech-saturated lives are burying the planet in electronic waste

In 2016, more than 44 million metric tons of electronic waste was generated, which is 8 percent higher than the total in 2014, according to a new report.


The waste reflect the world's "transition to a more digital world, where automation, sensors and artificial intelligence are transforming all the industries," said co author Antonis Mavropoulos, president of the International Solid Waste Association.

It's only going to get worse—experts project another 17 percent increase by 2021 if things don't change. That would take the total to more than 52 million metric tons.

E-waste, considered in the report as products with a battery or cord, contains a bunch of harmful chemicals such as heavy metals, flame-retardants and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).

Key numbers:

  • 4,500 Eiffel Towers = equal in weight to 2016's e-waste
  • 7.7 billion = number of mobile or cellular subscriptions
  • 7.4 billion = planet's population
  • 45 percent = people globally now using the Internet
  • 20 percent = E-waste in 2016 properly recycled
  • 38 pounds = E-waste generated per person in Australia and New Zealand (highest in world)
  • 35 percent = Europe's collection rate of e-waste (highest in world)

Causes, some optimism

There are a number causes for the explosion in waste, said co author Ruediger Kuehr of United Nations University, but chief among them:

  • A growing global middle class
  • Strong industry competition spurring the need for newer products
  • More and more gadgets on the market that aren't easily repaired

"With Christmas coming up we're all making Christmas preparation, I'm surprised myself about what now comes with a battery or a plug," he said.

Kuehr and colleagues are calling for all countries to better track e-waste and for manufacturers to design products in a way that makes recycling easier.

There is some good news: 66 percent of the global population is covered by national e-waste laws. But only 41 countries actually monitor and measure the waste. "How can you do good if you don't quantify? Kuehr said.

Credit: NRC

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