The U.N.’s fourth Global E-Waste Monitor report estimated 62 million metric tons of end-of-life electronics and electrical appliances were generated in 2022, of which 22.3% were recycled through formal collection systems. | SAPhotog/Shutterstock

A global analysis from the United Nations found that electronics and electrical equipment are reaching end of life at a quantity and speed that is far outpacing the recycling sector’s capacity to collect and process that material. Still, the global collection rate is on the rise.

The U.N. on March 20 published the fourth edition of its Global E-Waste Monitor, focused on e-scrap and end-of-life electrical appliance generation and recovery in 2022. The last global report was issued in 2020 and covered material generation and recovery in 2019. The report is a collaboration between the International Telecommunications Union, a specialized agency of the U.N., and the United Nations Institute for Training and Research, among other organizations.

The new report estimates 62 million metric tons of end-of-life electronics and electrical appliances were generated in 2022, while the collection rate in documented formal collection systems totaled 22.3%, with 13.8 million metric tons collected. Those figures compare to 53.6 million metric tons in 2019, when the collection rate was 17.4% with 9.3 million metric tons collected.

The report found e-scrap and end-of-life appliance generation has grown by an average of 2.3 million metric tons per year since 2010, but that the documented formal collection and recycling rate has increased by an average of just 500,000 metric tons per year.

That means end-of-life material generation is “outpacing the rise in formal recycling by a factor of almost 5 – driven by technological progress, higher consumption, limited repair options, short product lifecycles, growing electronification and inadequate e-waste management infrastructure,” the report stated.

In a statement, lead author Kees Baldé said the report “represents an immediate call for greater investment in infrastructure development, more promotion of repair and reuse, capacity building and measures to stop illegal e-waste shipments.”

E-scrap specific figures

The devices handled by ITAD and e-scrap processors primarily fall into two categories defined in the U.N. report. 

“Screens and monitors” contributed 5.9 million metric tons to the 2022 figure, or 9.5% of the total. That’s down from 6.7 million metric tons in 2019, when screens made up 12.5% of the total, and the decrease is associated with lighter-weight formats such as LEDs replacing CRT displays in the end-of-life stream.

“Small IT and telecommunication equipment,” including mobile phones, computers, printers, routers and other IT equipment, contributed 4.9 million metric tons in 2022, or 7.9% of the total. That’s slightly up from 4.7 million metric tons in 2019, when these devices contributed 8.7% of the total.

Within these categories, the report estimated 1.5 million metric tons of screens and monitors were collected through formal systems, for a 25% recycling rate, and 1 million metric tons of small IT equipment was collected through formal systems, for a 22% recycling rate.

The report noted that recycling rates are generally higher for larger products, like appliances, and lower for smaller products, like IT equipment. It pointed out that the IT equipment recycling rate is higher than for other small-format device streams – lamps or small appliances such as microwaves, for instance – and that this could be because countries typically have more legislation covering IT device disposal. 

But the authors also pointed out the IT device recycling rate is lower than the rate for screens and monitors, “possibly because small IT devices contain personal data and consumers may therefore be reluctant to give them back.”

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