After recent reports that discarded e-waste in 2021 will weigh more than the Great Wall of China, The International Data Sanitization Consortium (IDSC) has sent an open letter to the RT Hon Alok Sharma MP, President of COP26, urging that e-waste be included on the agenda at COP26.

Electronic : The Fastest Growing Global Waste Stream

According to the UN’s Global E-waste Monitor report (2020), e-waste is now the fastest growing global waste stream with a record 53.6 million metric tonnes (Mt) of electronic waste generated worldwide in 2019, up 21 per cent in just five years.

A 2019 report by Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy (PACE) and the UN E-Waste Coalition highlighted how global e-waste production looks set to reach 20 million tonnes per year by 2050. To put this in context, the worldwide pile of electronic waste currently weighs more than all the commercial airliners ever made and as highlighted by the WEEE, more than the weight of the Great Wall of China.

UK Big E-Waste Producer

The UK currently produces 24.9kg of e-waste per person, which is nearly 10kg more than the European Union (EU) average and as noted in the IDSC’s open letter to The Rt Hon Alok Sharma MP, the UK is the second-largest producer of e-waste per capita in the world.

Total Disregard For E-Waste In Government Plans

The IDSC’s letter, penned by Fredrik Forslund, Director of the IDSC, states that “UK government’s ambitions to “Build Back Greener” and lead in climate change prevention through its Net Zero strategy and Ten Point Green Plan, there has been a total disregard for e-waste.”

Opportunity For Recycling Scarce Materials Also Overlooked

The letter also makes the point that “Where current government strategies have outlined intentions to create solutions to lower emissions, opportunities to promote and incentivize more reuse and recycling of scarce materials and functional products have been overlooked.”

This a point that’s supported by the Global E-waste Monitor (2020) report which found that less than 20 per cent of the world’s e-waste is collected and recycled, meaning that gold, silver, copper, platinum and other high-value, recoverable materials (conservatively valued at US $57 billion) are simply dumped or burned.

Precious Metals In Phones

A recent assessment by the waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) also showed that an estimated 151 million or more phones a year, approximately 416,000 a day, are simply incinerated or landfilled, and that 40 per cent of heavy metals in US landfills come from discarded electronics. Dr Ruediger Kuehr, director of the UN’s Sustainable Cycles (SCYCLE) programme was recently quoted as saying that “A tonne of discarded mobile phones is richer in gold than a tonne of gold ore.”  Dr Kuehr also claims that one million mobile phones contain “24 kg of gold, 16,000 kg of copper, 350 kg of silver, and 14 kg of palladium”.

What’s To Be Done?

The IDSC’s letter calls for a more comprehensive green strategy where the UK government provides incentives for organisations that pursue sustainable e-waste management and demonstrate engagement with the circular economy. It also advises the UK government to provide guidance to organisations and consumers on how to transition away from a “take, make, consume, dispose” attitude to end-of-life electronics and IT equipment.

Organisations Unsure About Data Protection Aspects

The IDSC suggests that there is a relationship between data protection technology, e-waste reduction and circular economy growth, and that organisations may be unsure of how they can engage with the circular economy as data regulation and public sector policy do not advocate for the reuse of data bearing assets.

With this in mind, the IDSC has asked the UK government to consider data sanitisation policy reform, outlining best practices in data management to prepare devices and IT equipment for reuse, refurbishment, and appropriate means of recycling.

What Does This Mean For Your Organisation?

As outlined by the IDSC and others, in order for the UK, which is a big e-waste producer, to deal more effectively with the e-waste problem there needs to be more help from the government. This could be recognising the e-waste problem, including the issue in a more comprehensive green strategy, considering data sanitisation policy reform, and providing incentives for organisations to pursue sustainable e-waste management and engage with the circular economy. The IDSC has rightly highlighted the need for a big change in the “take, make, consume, dispose” attitude to end-of-life electronics and IT equipment, and creating a better circular economy in the UK for electronic goods. Also, those who manufacture and sell devices need to look at ways to de-materialise the electronics industry e.g., through device-as-a-service business models, better product tracking and take-back schemes, and entrepreneurs, investors, academics, business leaders plus lawmakers can help by working together to find ways to make the circular economy function more effectively.