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The mounting visible problem of “Invisible E-waste”

invisible E-waste

“Invisible” e-waste, which includes small consumer electronics like disposable vapes, toys, and cables, is accumulating in vast quantities, robbing supply chains of valuable materials and posing environmental hazards. A new analysis highlights the growing issue of overlooked trends in e-waste. These often-overlooked electronics contain hazardous materials like lead and mercury, which can leach into the environment when not properly disposed of.

The numbers speak

According to the analysis, 9 billion kilograms (9 million metric tons) of “invisible” e-waste are discarded each year globally, equivalent to the weight of half a million dump trucks loaded with electric toothbrushes, LED-adorned holiday sweaters, drones, and other small electronics, stretching from Nairobi to Rome if lined up. Disposable vapes, new devices with varying chargers, and the Internet of Things have contributed to this problem.

Proper recycling of these devices could recover around $9.5 billion worth of materials, including iron, copper, and gold, that could have been reclaimed in 2019 alone. Copper-laden cables discarded last year could have wrapped around the world 107 times, highlighting the importance of recovering these valuable resources as demand for copper surges.

One of the major concerns is the waste of lithium in discarded vapes and rechargeable devices. Lithium is a critical battery mineral, crucial for the transition to cleaner energy and transportation.

The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Forum, a nonprofit organization, commissioned a study by the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) to assess invisible electronics. The analysis used data from UNITAR’s global e-waste monitor, which tracks various types of e-waste.

Too big to ignore

Europe collects around 55 percent of e-waste due to Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) laws that require manufacturers to manage their product waste. In contrast, many other regions lack similar regulations and recycling infrastructure, resulting in a global e-waste collection rate of just 17 percent.

The growing problem of invisible e-waste underscores the need for increased awareness, recycling programs, and responsible disposal practices to mitigate environmental risks and promote resource recovery.

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