Escalating E-Waste Could Turn An Opportunity into A Threat

Waste electrical and electronic equipment, known as e-waste, is the fastest growing solid waste stream globally. This growth is driven by the increasing economic development, urbanization, industrialization and income on the one hand (Debnath et al., 2018), and the planned obsolescence and modernization that make existing technologies redundant and/or out of fashion on the other (Awasthi et al., 2019). The recent UN’s Global E-waste Monitor 2020 report reveals that in 2019 around 53.6 million metric tonnes (Mt) of e-waste was generated globally[1], of which only 17.4% (9.3 Mt) was formally collected and recycled. The report makes no explicit reference to the fate of the remaining 82.6% of e-waste. It suggests that this may be legally (for refurbishment and reuse, often under false pretense) and illegally exported to developing countries (Forti et al., 2020), with much of the e-waste being non-functional and irreparable ‘e-scrap’ (Hinchliffe et al., 2020).

The irreversible environmental, economic and social negative consequences of e-scrap management in developing countries are well documented in the global literature, as are the opportunities for the informal recycling sector (Awasthi et al., 2019, Hinchliffe et al., 2020). For example, informal workers that live in vulnerable, marginal conditions are highly dependent on the income they earn from the sale of valuable resources e.g. copper and gold and components, they extract from e-waste. This income contributes towards the improvement of their livelihoods, and poverty eradication (Hinchliffe et al., 2020). In addition, the repair and reuse of good quality refurbished equipment can provide an affordable source of ICT equipment to a high number of people giving them access to mobile phones and computer facilities at home, school and businesses. This in turn supports the breakdown of the global ‘digital divide’, creating opportunities for social and economic development.

But, the situation is not so straightforward. E-scrap contains hazardous substances such as lead, mercury or brominated flame-retardants that pose high environmental and health risks if not properly managed. Informal recycling practices are suboptimal and are often carried out under inappropriate working conditions, with devastating environmental, economic and human health impacts. Workers do not have the skills and/or access to environmentally sound technologies and personal protective equipment rendering the management of e-waste in developing countries extremely dangerous and unstainable. The health and environmental implications associated with such practices are mounting in urgency due to the expected increase in the production and shipment of e-waste (Hinchliffe et al., 2020).

Is the breakdown of digital divide and poverty reduction a justification for the increasing production and shipment of e-waste to developing countries in spite of the environmental degradation and health implications? Where is the silver lining to such practices, and how should action be prioritized to reduce the environmentally destructive practices associated with the e-waste management practices? With the global volume of e-waste expected to increase over the next years, a holistic approach must be urgently sought after to identify the right solutions, and avoid the risk of undermining efforts to promote sustainable development alongside the sustainable recovery of resources from e-waste. This requires a holistic understanding of the system, looking at the design, production, use, disposal and management of e-waste, and the balancing of multi-dimensional values that span the political, environmental, economic, social and technical domains (Iacovidou et al., 2017). Currently, much of the attention and discussions are focused on the political and economic spheres that seem to bear little (if any) positive impact in curbing the e-waste management problems. Developing countries are still the backyards of developed ones, serving corporations at the back of impoverished people that seek to improve their well-being. Unless action is taken, the deleterious effects of inappropriate production, use, disposal and management of e-waste will soon become a global threat to our natural, social and economic systems.

A systems based approach could play a key role in understanding the drivers and barriers of e-waste production-use-management system and identifying ways of recovering maximum value for e-waste, whilst inflicting the lowest possible environmental, economic, social and technical impacts (Iacovidou et al., 2017). As described in (Iacovidou et al., 2017), the geographical scale and context and the consideration and selection of values from different stakeholders (incl. consumers and their behavioral traits) and policy-makers perspectives is essential to creating a clear picture of the e-waste issues and enabling the development of an integrated e-waste management strategy centered around the 3R’s principle of reduce, reuse, recycle for recovering maximum value from the e-waste stream, whilst promoting circularity and sustainability (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Overview of the key elements involved in the development of an integrated e-waste management plan

Developing and implementing an integrated e-waste management plan requires data, a good understanding of the relevant ecological, economic, social/ behavioural, political, and organizational drivers, and the development of a supportive regulatory and political landscape to encourage change. To that end, a global multi-national collaboration between regulators and governments, and other stakeholders is needed to revise, reform and promote social security and development, environmental protection and conservation, and regulatory and economic reconstruction of the e-waste production-consumption-management system (Iacovidou et al., 2017). It also requires the development of skills and capacity building to improve product design upstream, and facilities for e-waste management downstream of the e-waste system. This could also involve the employment of new environmentally sound technologies, given that there is space for establishing and maintaining a well-functioning market for sustainable and second-hand electrical and electronic equipment, and recycled materials. This is imperative for averting future irreversible consequences, and ensuring the scientific knowledge sharing, behavioral change based on awareness raising campaigns and good communication techniques; essential ingredients in promoting a sustainable management of e-waste resources alongside efforts to achieve circularity and sustainable development (Awasthi et al., 2019).

[1] Continental contribution: Asia (24.9 Mt), Americas (13.1 Mt), Europe (12 Mt), Africa (2.9 Mt), and and Oceania (0.7 Mt)


AWASTHI, A. K., LI, J., KOH, L. & OGUNSEITAN, O. A. 2019. Circular economy and electronic waste. Nature Electronics, 2, 86-89.
DEBNATH, B., CHOWDHURY, R. & GHOSH, S. K. 2018. Sustainability of metal recovery from E-waste. Frontiers of Environmental Science & Engineering, 12, 2.
FORTI, V., BALDE, C. P., KUEHR, R. & BEL, G. 2020. The Global E-waste Monitor 2020: Quantities, flows and the circular economy potential. Bonn, Geneva and Rotterdam: United Nations University/United Nations Institute for Training and Research, International Telecommunication Union, and International Solid Waste Association.
HINCHLIFFE, D., GUNSILIUS, E., WAGNER, M., HEMKHAUS, M., BATTEIGER, A., RABBOW, E., RADULOVIC, V., CHENG, C., DE FAUTEREAU, B., OTT, D., AWASTHI, A. K. & SMITH, E. 2020. Case studies and approaches to building Partnerships between the informal and the formal sector for sustainable e-waste management. Solving the E-waste Problem (StEP) Initiative.
IACOVIDOU, E., MILLWARD-HOPKINS, J., BUSCH, J., PURNELL, P., VELIS, C. A., HAHLADAKIS, J. N., ZWIRNER, O. & BROWN, A. 2017. A pathway to circular economy: Developing a conceptual framework for complex value assessment of resources recovered from waste. Journal of Cleaner Production, 168, 1279-1288.

Dr Eleni Iacovidou
Division of Environmental Sciences
College of Health, Medicine and Life Sciences
Brunel University London,
Kingston Ln, London,
Uxbridge UB8 3PH, UK

Dr Abishek Kumar Awasthi
School of Environment,
Nanjing University,
Nanjing 210023, China