What is e-waste?
Why is e-waste growing?E-waste is growing exponentially simply because the markets in which these products are produced are also growing rapidly as many parts of the world cross over to the other side of the ‘Digital Divide’. For example, between 2000 and 2005, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) notes a 22% growth in Information and Communications Technology (ICT) in China1. Furthermore, China was the 6th largest ICT market in 2006, after the US, Japan, Germany, UK and France2. This is astounding when one considers that just ten years ago, under 1% of China’s population owned a computer3. Computers are only one part of the e-waste stream though, as we see that in the EU in 2005, fridges and other cooling and freezing appliances, combined with large household appliances, accounted for 44% of total e-waste, according to UNU’s Study supporting the 2008 Review of the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive4.
Rapid product innovations and replacement, especially in ICT and office equipment, combined with the migration from analogue to digital technologies and to flat-screen TVs and monitors, for example, are fuelling the increase. Additionally, economies of scale have given way to lower prices for many electrical goods, which has increased global demand for many products that eventually end up as e-waste.
How much e-waste is there?Because so much of the planet’s e-waste is unaccounted for, it is difficult to quantify e-waste amounts. Moreover, the types of e-waste included in government-initiated analyses and collection programmes vary from country to country. Under the current version of the WEEE Directive, the EU has 10 distinct product categories, whereas in North America it is typically limited to Information and Communications Technology (ICT) products and televisions and in Japan to four product categories including TVs, air conditioners, refrigerators and washing machines.
The deviation in categorization of e-waste notwithstanding, reasonable estimates are in the order of 40 million tonnes p.a., which is enough to fill a line of dump-trucks stretching half way around the globe. A recent review of European legislation on e-waste, known as the “Waste Electrical Electronic Equipment (WEEE)” Directive (mentioned earlier), highlights that in 2005 in Europe alone, there were between 8.3 and 9.1 million tonnes of e-waste, tendency rising. In Australia, with an average of 22 electrical items per household, the Australian Bureau of Statistics has estimated that in the next two years, most of the 9 million computers, 5 million printers and 2 million scanners in Australian homes will be replaced9. In the US the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) has reported that the US generated 1.9 to 2.2 million tonnes of e-waste in 2005, with only 12.5% collected for recycling10.