E-waste recycling still falling short

A record level of discarded electrical and electronic products, amounting to 41.8 million tons worldwide, was thrown away last year, with less than one-sixth of it being properly recycled, according to a new report from the United Nations. It was the largest amount ever discarded, and there is no sign it will slow down. Even countries like Japan that have recycling and recovery programs discard a massive — and dangerous — amount of e-waste.

The study, conducted by United Nations University, a research branch of the U.N., found that in volume terms, the largest amount of e-waste was generated in the United States and China, which together accounted for 32 percent of the total. The third most wasteful country by volume was Japan, which discarded a grand total of 2.2 million tons in 2013.

Even though Japan’s per capita waste, 17.3 kg per inhabitant, was lower than some less densely populated countries, other countries, such as those in Africa, had much lower amounts of e-waste. Africa’s average was 1.7 kg per person, one-tenth the amount of the waste generated by the average Japanese.

This kind of refuse is dangerous and highly toxic. The refrigerators, washing machines and microwave ovens routinely discarded contain large amounts of lead glass, batteries, mercury, cadmium, chromium and other ozone-depleting CFCs. The 7 percent of e-waste last year made up of mobile phones, calculators, personal computers, printers and small information technology equipment also contained poisonous components.

E-waste last year also contained valuable resources worth $52 billion, only a quarter of which was recovered. Worldwide, an estimated 16.5 million tons of iron, 1.9 million tons of copper, 300 tons of gold (equal to 11 percent of the world’s total gold production in 2013), as well as silver, aluminum and palladium plastic, was simply thrown out. With better recovery systems, those resources wouldn’t end up in dumps, increasingly located in poorer countries, but would be recycled.

Japan was one of the first countries to impose recycling of e-waste, and the system here is better than in many countries. However, Japan still only treats around 24 to 30 percent of its e-waste, the report estimated. The government reported that 556,000 tons of e-waste was collected and treated in Japan in 2013, but that still only accounts for one-quarter of the total.

The convenience people have sought in the kitchen, laundry and bathroom, and for daily communication, has become the world’s noxious waste. With rising sales and shorter life cycles for products, the e-waste problem is not likely to improve anytime soon.

Individuals should make sure that their disposal of even small gadgets is handled correctly. Governments around the world, including Japan, need to impose stricter rules, establish better disposal and recycling systems, and increase oversight.