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Hidden e-waste: Millions of tons discarded in the US each year

Every year, an alarmingly large quantity of e-waste goes unnoticed. Items such as discarded cables, electronic toys, LED-embellished novelty garments, power tools, vaping devices, and a myriad of smaller consumer products are often discarded by consumers as e-waste. 

E-waste accumulation 

These items collectively contribute to a colossal nine billion kilograms of electronic waste annually in the US. This figure represents a staggering one-sixth of the total global e-waste production. 

To put this in perspective, should this “hidden” e-waste be amassed, it would be equivalent to the weight of almost half a million 40-tons trucks – a continuous line stretching from Rome all the way to Nairobi.

Increasing use of lithium

As the world marks the 6th annual International E-Waste Day on October 14th, this overlooked category of e-waste takes center stage. A concerning trend is the increasing use of lithium in devices such as vapes. While lithium plays a vital role in making batteries rechargeable, it also poses a substantial fire hazard upon disposal. 

The European Commission has even flagged lithium as a ‘strategic raw material,’ crucial for Europe’s transition to green energy, yet its supply remains in jeopardy, with vast amounts being discarded with household trash.

Electronic toys 

This groundbreaking study, spearheaded by the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Forum and conducted by the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR), sheds light on the enormity of the situation. Of particular note is the category of electronic toys, such as racing sets, drones, and biking computers. 

These toys alone account for a whopping 3.2 billion kg or 35 percent of the ‘invisible’ e-waste, equating to an astonishing 7.3 billion individual items discarded every single year. This means that, on average, every individual on Earth disposes of one electronic toy annually.

Vaping devices

Highlighting another segment, the researchers argue that the vaping devices discarded yearly form an e-waste mountain with a weight equivalent to triple that of New York’s iconic Brooklyn Bridge or even six times the weight of Paris’ Eiffel Tower. 

Additionally, the staggering 950 million kg of discarded cables, rich in precious and recyclable copper, could encircle our planet 107 times.

Invisible waste

Pascal Leroy, Director-General of the WEEE Forum, emphasized the deceptive nature of ‘invisible’ e-waste. “Invisible e-waste goes unnoticed due to its nature or appearance, leading consumers to overlook its recyclable potential.” 

“People tend to recognize household electrical products as those they plug in and use regularly. But many people are confused about the waste category into which ancillary, peripheral, specialist, hobby, and leisure products fit and how to have them recycled,” explained Leroy.

Public awareness of e-waste

Magdalena Charytanowicz of the WEEE Forum highlights the urgency to increase public awareness, drawing parallels to the global mobilization against plastic pollution. 

Despite Europe’s leading efforts, where 55 percent of e-waste is officially collected and processed thanks to two decades of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) legislation, the global average lags, with collection rates barely scraping past 17 percent.

Virginijus Sinkevičius, the European Commissioner for the Environment, underscores the need for a holistic approach, integrating modern circular economy principles into legislation. He believes that harmonizing standards and defining clear e-waste management protocols are essential steps forward.

Escalating e-waste crisis

Looking at the broader picture, the United Nations warns of an escalating e-waste crisis. By 2023, it is estimated that every global citizen will produce about eight kg of e-waste. 

Out of this, a mere 17.4 percent will be appropriately collected and processed, leaving the lion’s share to rot in landfills, be burned, or stockpiled in households.

Organizations like the WEEE Forum remain committed to the responsible management of e-waste, championing the importance of collective global action in addressing this ever-growing challenge. The onus is also on consumers to recognize the value and potential hazards in items that, at first glance, might not seem like typical e-waste.

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