Each year, International E-Waste Day is held on 14 October, an opportunity to reflect on the impacts of e-waste and the necessary actions to enhance circularity for e-products. International E-Waste Day was developed in 2018 by the WEEE Forum to raise the public profile of waste electrical and electronic equipment recycling and encourage consumers to recycle.
According to the United Nations, in 2021 each person on the planet will produce on average 7.6 kg of e-waste, meaning that a massive 57.4 million tons will be generated worldwide. Only 17.4% of this electronic waste, containing a mixture of harmful substances and precious materials, will be recorded as being properly collected, treated and recycled. Many initiatives are undertaken to tackle this growing concern, but none of them can be fully effective without the active role and correct education of consumers.
The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) also indicates that e-waste is one of the largest and most complex waste streams in the world. According to the Global E-waste Monitor 2020, the world generated 53.6 Mt of e-waste in 2019, only 9.3 Mt (17%) of which was recorded as being collected and recycled. E-waste contains valuable materials, as well as hazardous toxins, which make the efficient material recovery and safe recycling of e-waste extremely important for economic value as well as environmental and human health. The discrepancy in the amount of e-waste produced and the amount of e-waste that is properly recycled reflects an urgent need for all stakeholders including the youth to address this issue.
2023 Theme: You can recycle anything with a plug, battery or cable!
This year’s edition will run under the slogan “You can recycle anything with a plug, battery or cable!” highlighting the issue of invisible e-waste – the electronic items that often go unrecognized and are not properly recycled within the appropriate waste stream. While e-waste is often associated with discarded gadgets and devices, a significant amount of electronic waste remains hidden in plain sight.
What is the invisible e-waste?
International E-Waste Day 2023 is devoted to shedding light on ‘invisible’ electronic waste. According to the UN, 8 kg of e-waste per person will be produced worldwide in 2023. This means 61.3 million tonnes of electronic waste discarded within a year – more than the weight of the Great Wall of China. Only 17.4 per cent of this waste, containing a mixture of harmful substances and precious materials, will be recorded as being properly collected, treated and recycled globally. The remaining 50,6 million tonnes will be either placed in landfill, burned or illegally traded and treated in a sub-standard way or simply hoarded in the households. Even in Europe, which leads the world in e-waste recycling, only 54% of e-waste is officially reported as collected and recycled and the lack of public awareness is preventing countries from developing circular economies for electronic equipment.
Invisible e-waste refers to electronic waste that goes unnoticed due to its nature or appearance, leading consumers to overlook its recyclable potential. As today’s lifestyle is more and more technology oriented, a lot of products present on the market have an electrical or electronic components. This means that at the end of their lives, when they can no longer be reused or repaired, they should be part of the electronics’ recycling stream.
Some examples of this type of objects, largely present in households are: electric and electrotonic toys, e-cigarettes, power tools, smoke detectors, wearables, smart home gadgets, e-bikes and e-scooters or simply cables.
Why is invisible e-waste a problem?
According to the study developed in 2022 by UNITAR and WEEE Forum members in 6 countries, (UK, Italy, Portugal, Romania, Slovenia and The Netherlands) of the 74 average total e-products in a household 13 are being hoarded (9 of them unused but working and 4 broken). Small consumer electronics and accessories (such as headphones, remote controls – often not recognised as electronic items) rank top of the list of hoarded products. If these gadgets remain in the drawers and cupboards, the valuable resources they contain cannot re-enter the manufacturing cycle and are lost.
When electronic devices and components are disposed of improperly because they were not recognised as e-waste, they often end up in landfills or incinerators. Electronics contain various hazardous substances such as lead, mercury, cadmium, and flame retardants, which can leach into soil and water sources, polluting ecosystems and posing risks to human health.
These devices also contain valuable resources, including precious metals like gold, silver, and copper, as well as rare and strategic elements also called Critical Raw Materials which are crucial for the green transition and production of new electronic devices. When e-waste is not recycled properly, these valuable materials go to waste. Mining and extracting new resources to meet the demand for new electronics production contribute to the depletion of finite resources and intensify environmental damage.
Addressing the Environmental Risks of E-Waste from Geneva
E-waste can be toxic, is not biodegradable and accumulates in the environment, in the soil, air, water and living things. A 2019 joint report “A New Circular Vision for Electronics – Time for a Global Reboot” calls for a new vision for e-waste based on the circular economy concept, whereby a regenerative system can minimize waste and energy leakage. The report supports the work of the E-waste Coalition, which includes the ILO, ITU, UNEP, UNIDO, UNITAR, UNU and Secretariats of the Basel and Stockholm Conventions. The organisations and many more in Geneva are actively working to reduce the environmental and health risks of e-waste. Learn more in our thematic page below.