We’re burying ourselves under a mountain of electronic and electrical waste (e-waste) and it’s putting the environment and the wellbeing of people under growing pressure.

According to a new report launched at Davos 2019, there is so much of it that it would weigh more than 125,000 Boeing 747 jumbo jets – 44.7 million tonnes in total. That’s enough to build 4,500 replicas of the Eiffel Tower. Every year.

Sources of e-waste are almost as varied as the form they take. Everything from mobile phones and computers to toasters and televisions, through to office equipment and domestic solar power systems are contributing to the problem. And although it only amounts to around 2% of all solid waste, it’s responsible for 70% of all hazardous waste.

The internet of discarded things

In 2017, 1.46 billion smartphones were sold. By 2020 there could be as many as 2.87 billion people with a smartphone. But those numbers pale into insignificance when compared with the Internet of Things (IoT) which could see as many as 50 billion networked devices in use by 2020. From smart home devices to commercial sensors, it is highly likely that everything connected to the IoT will one day become obsolete – adding yet more bulk to the e-waste pile.

There’s gold in e-waste – literally

It might surprise you to learn that there’s more gold in 100 tonnes of smartphones than you’ll find in 100 tonnes of gold ore. Yet, in 2016 435,000 tonnes of mobile phones ended up being simply thrown away. Other rare and valuable materials contained in e-waste include silver, copper, platinum and palladium. None of which you would be likely to knowingly throw out with your garbage.

Recycling and the informal economy

Recovering precious metals from e-waste recycling is already big business. The total value of e-waste is believed to be in the order of $62.5 billion. That’s three times more than the value of the world’s total silver mining output and greater than the GDP of many countries. But recovering the value buried in e-waste is fraught with difficulty.

As well as gold and platinum, there are plenty of hazardous materials in e-waste items; lead, mercury and cadmium feature in many electronic devices. In a well-ordered recycling facility, their recovery can be handled without unnecessary risk to workers or harm to the environment.

But around 1.3 million tonnes of undocumented e-waste is exported by European Union member countries every year. Most, possibly even all of which ends up in unregulated hands, where the recycling and recovery process is far more rudimentary.

In Nigeria, there are around 100,000 people working in the informal recycling sector. It is not uncommon for the recovery process to revolve around setting fire to large piles of e-waste, to burn off the plastic and leave the metals exposed. This is very dangerous work that exposes people to toxic fumes and pollutes the immediate environment.

A circular solution

Putting an end to the problem of e-waste, whether from the perspective of pollution, lost value or harm to health, will call for more than better recycling facilities. While ensuring proper handling of e-waste is crucial, stemming the tide of discarded devices has to be a priority too. That means designing products that are durable rather than disposable, and ensuring that when they reach the end of their usefulness they can be recycled easily and safely.

That vision could include buy-back schemes where retailers and manufacturers assume responsibility for proper disposal procedures. But it might also call for more radical changes, such as deviating from asset-ownership models to service-subscription ones, where devices are leased for fixed periods and then returned, recycled and replaced.

The report, A New Circular Vision for Electronics, Time for a Global Reboot, is available here.