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

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.

SUBSCRIBE TO EHN'S MUST-READ DAILY NEWSLETTER: ABOVE THE FOLD
From our Newsroom

How environmental justice work takes a toll on people of color

From discrimination and a lack of staff diversity to witnessing communities like yours harmed, environmental justice work is an emotional and physical struggle.

Mental health and sustainable healthcare

An unlikely pairing offers potential for discovery and insight.

Plastic additive increases breast cancer relapse, mortality: New science

DEHP, a phthalate used to make IV bags and tubing pliable, increases breast cancer mortality and relapse risk, a new study warns

Air pollution can alter our brains in ways that increase mental illness risk

Emerging research finds polluted air linked to mental health problems, leaving western Pennsylvania children and environmental justice communities at high risk.

Pollution’s mental toll: How air, water and climate pollution shape our mental health

For years Americans have been warned about the dangers of pollution and climate change but one effect is neglected: impacts to our brains.

Feeling anxious about climate change? Experts say you're not alone

Research shows more people are feeling anxious about the climate crisis and their numbers will only increase in the coming years. Experts are concerned it's taking a toll on mental health.

Above The Fold

Daily & Weekly newsletters all free.