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Dec 15, 2021

The e-waste market

e-waste recycling

In 2019, approximately 53.6 million metric tons (Mt) of e-waste was generated - an average of 7.3 kg per capita. It is estimated that the amount of e-waste generated will exceed 74Mt in 2030, meaning that the global quantity of e-waste is increasing almost 2 Mt per year.

The increasing amount of e-waste is driven by higher consumption of electronics, urbanization, industrialization, short life cycles and limited repair options. In 2019, the highest quantity of e-waste was generated in Asia (24.9 Mt), followed by the Americas (13.1 Mt) and Europe (12 Mt), while Africa and Oceania generated 2.9 Mt and 0.7 Mt, respectively. In terms of e-waste generated per capita, Europe ranked first (16.2 kg per capita), followed by Oceania (16.2 kg per capita) and Americas (13.3 kg per capita), and finally Asia and Africa at just 5.6 and 2.5 kg per capita, respectively.

e-waste
Figure 1. e-waste generated annually (Forti V., Baldé C.P., Kuehr R., Bel G. The Global E-waste Monitor 2020: Quantities, flows and the circular economy potential)

Due to the fact that electronic products often contain harmful components, proper disposal of e-waste is imperative. Besides the environmental reasons, there are also economic incentives for proper disposal of e-waste. Electronics often contain valuable resources, such as gold, silver, platinum, iron, copper, and plastic.

It is estimated that the value of raw materials in the global e-waste generated in 2019 is equal to approximately 57 billion USD. However, majority of this potential is left unused, mainly due to low recycling rates and poor infrastructure for collecting and managing e-waste. In fact, of the 53.6 Mt of e-waste generated in 2019, only 17.4% (9.3 Mt) was formally documented to be properly collected and recycled. The rest is either improperly discarded or exported, usually from developed to developing countries.

The proportion of e-waste that is collected and available for processing and extraction of secondary raw materials, such as metals and plastic, is commonly referred to as e-scrap. The amount of e-scrap gathered domestically depends on the nation’s recycling rate. Highest recycling rates in 2019 were recorded in Europe (42.5%), followed by Asia (11.7%), the Americas (9.4%), Oceania (8.8%), and Africa (0.9%).

e-waste
Figure 2. e-waste generated in 2019 by market area (Forti V., Baldé C.P., Kuehr R., Bel G. The Global E-waste Monitor 2020: Quantities, flows and the circular economy potential)

To increase the recycling rates, governments around the world are implementing some form of policy, legislation or regulation aimed to stimulate the collection and proper management of e-waste. By improving e-waste collection and recycling practices, a considerable amount of secondary raw materials could be made available to re-enter the manufacturing process while reducing the continuous extraction of new materials.

The Plenipotentiary Conference has established a target to increase the global e-waste recycling rate from 17.4% in 2019 to 30% by 2023, meaning that the formal collection and recycling rate would need to increase at a much faster pace to reach the target.

Driven by population growth, industrialization and urbanization, the demand for electronic equipment is only expected to grow. The fastest growth is expected in areas with a growing population and increasing GDP per capita. Growing demand for electronics also means increasing demand for raw materials and increasing amount of e-waste. With the increasing demand for raw materials, combined with diminishing ore grades and rising metal prices, the mining of secondary resources is becoming increasingly important. With efficient and environmentally friendly e-scrap processing technologies, organizations can lower the global e-waste management emissions while extracting valuable resources from the “urban mine.”

This article is part of our Smelting Newsletter Issue 2/2021. Visit the issue front page for all articles and greetings from Lauri Närhi, Director of Sales - Smelting Business Line.

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