E-waste is a vast and growing problem.
The majority of Americans (97%) now own a cellphone of some kind. The share of Americans that own a smartphone is now 85%, up from just 35% in 2011.
Nearly three-quarters of U.S. adults now own desktop or laptop computers, roughly half now own tablets.
Since technologies change quickly, many users change devices regularly; often before they actually break. Average replacement cycles are becoming shorter. The average smartphone lifecycle in the USA, China and major EU economies does not usually exceed 18 to 24 months.
The world generated 53.6 million metric tons (Mt) of electronic waste in 2019, and only 17.4% of this was officially documented as properly collected and recycled. The amount recycled grew 1.8 Mt since 2014, but total e-waste generation increased by 9.2 Mt. This indicates that the recycling activities are not keeping pace with the global growth of e-waste.
The U.S. and Canada annually generate 7.7 million metric tons (Mt) of electronic waste or 20.9 kilograms (kg) per capita. Of that 7.7 Mt, the U.S. generates 7 Mt and Canada generates 0.7 Mt. Only 15% of e-waste in North America is recycled.
Increasing levels of e-waste, improper and unsafe treatment, and disposal through incineration or in landfills pose significant challenges to the environment, human health, and to the achievement of the U.N Sustainable Development Goals.
Recent studies have continued to highlight the dangers to human health from exposure to well-studied toxins. Research has found that unregulated e-waste is associated with increasing numbers of adverse health effects. These include adverse birth outcomes (Zhang Y et al. 2018), altered neurodevelopment (Huo X et al. 2019b), adverse learning outcomes (Soetrisno et al. 2020), DNA damage (Alabi OA et al. 2012.), adverse cardiovascular effects (Cong X et al. 2018), adverse respiratory effects (Amoabeng Nti AA et al. 2020), adverse effects on the immune system (Huo X et al. 2019b), skin diseases (Decharat S et al. 2019; Seith et al. 2019), hearing loss (Xu L et al. 2020), and cancer (Davis JM et al. 2019).
E-waste contains precious metals including gold, silver, copper, platinum and palladium; valuable bulky materials such as iron and aluminum along with plastics that can be recycled. It also contains rare earth and scarce metals as well as hazardous materials such as mercury, lead, cadmium, fluorocarbons or various flame retardants.
The increasing need for raw materials (especially for rare earth and minor elements) and unregulated e-waste recycling operations in developing and underdeveloped counties contribute to the growing concerns for e-waste management.