The eWaste Billions

Our love for the latest gadgets & gismos puts the planet in peril.

More precisely the problem is toxic design & manufacture, rapid obsolescence & replacement cycles, and inadequate reuse & recycling.

We are creating a toxic time-bomb of over 20 billion items of eWaste that demands our urgent attention. The UN estimates that in 2009 that there were 4.6 billion mobile phones in use worldwide ( According to World Bank World Development Indicators there were 2.6 billion radios in use in 2005 ( and 2 billion TVs ( Gartner Research shows that there are now over 1 billion computers in use worldwide ( These volumes are rising rapidly: we now produce and consume over 1 billion additional mobile phones every year. The size of this problem is unprecedented.

As if that was not bad enough, if we add to that the total volumes of all of the many other types of electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) currently in use on the planet it is easy to soon exceed 20 billion items globally.

The lists of common home and office appliances is endless but includes  ‘anything with a plug’: lights and lamps, refridgerators, cookers, kettles/toasters/grills, microwaves, washing machines, portable music players, games consoles, hi-fi systems, video/CD/DVD/blu-ray players, air-conditioners, hair straighteners, heated curlers, hair driers, electric shavers, cameras, fans, vacuum cleaners, faxes, photocopiers, printers and a myriad of other electrical and electronic appliances in current use today.

It is absolutely certain that every single one of those 20 billion items will rapidly reach the end of its productive life and become Waste Electric or Electronic Equipment (WEEE), more commonly known as eWaste.

The growing use of EEE is far from exclusive to developed economies. Growth in the mobile phone sector is fastest in Africa and the highest projected future volume markets for ICTs are in the fast-emerging, high-volume markets of Brazil, Russia, India and China. At a workshop that I led recently at the Zambian Open University, faculty staff were very quickly able to calculate that Zambia’s population of 12 million people owned at least 10-15  million items of electrical and electronic equipment ….. and Zambia has almost zero end-of-life recycling capacity.

Inadequate end-of-life recycling capacity is by no means exclusive to African economies. The USA, for example, has completely inadequate domestic recycling capacity for WEEE in relation to the vast quantity of eWaste that it generates. As a consequence the USA ships the vast majority of its eWaste overseas, to Asia and to Africa.

There are few, if any, countries that have the ability to safely process 100% of their own WEEE to acceptably high environmental standards.

Addressing this deficit in reuse and recycling capacity is an urgent task that unites everyone concerned with the environment: we need to solve the problem domestically in our own countries and lend any assistance that we can to our neighbours, globally.

It is critical that this issue is addressed if we are to protect the planet against the pollution and environmental damaged casued by dumping eWaste and to safeguard the health and safety of those involved in collecting used equipment and processing eWaste or living nearby.

Fortunately there is no mystery about how to end eWaste. We must reduce the carbon footprint of mining and manufacture and reduce the toxics used in the production of EEE. We must agree a common policy framework internationally to promote reuse of working EEE, and recycle all of our own WEEE as well as outlawing the dumping and export of eWaste. And we must enforce the Polluter Pays Principle.

These themes are all explored further in related posts.


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