Circular Economy

7 ways to boost e-waste recycling – and why it matters

Domestic appliance e-waste being recycled.

An estimated 62 billion kilogrammes of e-waste was produced in 2022. Image: Unsplash/John Cameron

Johnny Wood
Writer, Forum Agenda
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Circular Economy

This article was originally published on 14 February 2024 and updated on 15 April 2024.

  • E-waste, or waste electrical and electronic equipment, is the fastest-growing waste stream globally, with an estimated 62 billion kilogrammes produced in 2022 alone.
  • But the phones, tablets, laptops and other gadgets we discard contain valuable metals and minerals, collectively worth $62.5 billion each year.
  • With currently only about one-fifth of the world's e-waste recycled, a World Economic Forum report underscores the need for systemic change to encourage industries to embrace the circular economy.

Technological advancements continue to transform our world, but the result is a cascade of unwanted devices that are becoming the fastest-growing waste stream on the planet.

Global e-waste almost doubled in the past 12 years reaching 62 billion kilogrammes (kg) in 2022, and is projected to increase to 82 billion kg by 2030.

The growth of global e-waste
The world produces almost twice as much e-waste now as it did in 2010. Image: The Global E-waste Monitor

The total of 62 billion kg of e-waste generated in 2022 is enough to fill 1.55 million 25-metre-long trucks forming a bumper-to-bumper traffic jam stretching 40,000 kilometres around Earth's equator, according to The Global E-waste Monitor 2024 report produced by the United Nations.

However, just over 22% of all that waste was formally collected and recycled, the report notes.

Our discarded phones, tablets, laptops and other gadgets are worth $62.5 billion each year and, per tonne, contain 100 times more gold than the same weight of gold ore. And, yet, only about one-fifth of the world’s e-waste is recycled.

But here are seven initiatives aimed at boosting e-waste recycling rates to reuse the valuable metals and minerals contained in our old devices.

Global e-waste generated by year.
Global e-waste is predicted to reach 74.7 million tonnes by 2030. Image: UNU, ITU and ISWA

1. Colourful collections

Cambridge City Council in the UK now provides bright pink bins to collect residents’ discarded small electrical goods and reduce the quantity of e-waste that ends up in regular recycling collections.

These appliances cannot be included in curbside recycling bins, but they contain much-needed materials like copper and lithium.

Around 49 tonnes of small electrical appliances have been deposited into the eye-catching collection bins since they were installed in 2022, ready for reuse or recycling.

2. Egypt’s e-waste app

The app enables end-users to take their unwanted appliances to dedicated delivery points and exchange them for vouchers, which can be used to purchase new electronic goods from stores that have joined the scheme.

Safe recycling of electronic devices helps prevent harmful chemicals contained within, such as mercury or lead, from finding their way into soil and waterways.

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3. Precious metals from the Royal Mint

Together with Canadian start-up Excir, researchers have invented a patented process that they claim can extract 99% of the gold held on a printed circuit board found inside laptops, cell phones and other devices.

Royal Mint engineers are working to scale this quick, sustainable chemical process that operates at room temperature. The recovered gold will be melted into ingots ready for use in Royal Mint products.

4. Singapore’s policy and community fixes

The island state of Singapore generates an estimated 60,000 tonnes of e-waste each year, and with land in limited supply, the problem of what to do with it is high on the agenda.

At community level, the Repair Kopitiam – which means “coffee shop” in Malay – initiative relies on a network of local volunteers who work out of community centres to help local people repair old or broken appliances and electronics so they can be reused rather than discarded.

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5. Repair and reuse cafes

Repair cafes or centres like those in Singapore, where in-the-know volunteer repairers help people extend the useful life of their appliances and devices, have been around for many years in parts of Europe and elsewhere.

And countries like France are supporting this drive to avoid e-waste, with the country’s National Assembly voting to create a repairability index of electrical and electronic equipment, to boost the repair rate by 60% within five years of the legislation.

6. Northern Africa's e-waste legislation

Some countries in Northern Africa are turning to legislation to resolve their e-waste challenges, according to the UN's latest e-waste report.

Egypt has established a new regulatory agency for its waste management industry, and has further enforced a ban on imports of hazardous substances and wastes, including e-waste resulting from electrical and electronic equipment (EEE).

Tunisia has also moved to regulate e-waste, drafting a decree to establish a polluter-pays system for importing EEE.

E-waste collection and recycling centres are in operation at varying levels in both countries.

7. Taiwan's better-by-design approach

The Taiwanese government has established a legal framework to regulate and manage effective disposal and recycling of e-waste.

Under the legislation, manufacturers and importers of electronic goods are required to design products with recycling in mind, as well as establish collection systems and finance recycling and disposal of e-waste, making them responsible for the entire lifecycle of the products they produce.

The World Economic Forum’s Circular Transformation of Industries: Unlocking New Value in a Resource-Constrained World report, points to the systemic change required to bring about a circular transformation of industries to help unlock productivity, innovation and sustainability gains.

Higher global consumption of e-goods, shorter product life cycles and fewer repair options mean the amount of unwanted phones, laptops and other items is soaring. However, changing attitudes to the circular economy mean initiatives aimed at reusing and recycling e-waste could help us use precious metals and minerals more sustainably.

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Circular EconomyNature and Biodiversity
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