$62.5bn is lost in 50 million tonnes of electrical and electronic waste annually, but new and available technology could lead to the process of dematerialisation, changing physical assets to electronic.

The United Nations University reports that 50 million tonnes of e-waste could nearly triple to 120 million tonnes by 2050 if the current system for dealing with the waste goes unchecked.

Less than 20% of e-waste is formally recycled, although informally millions of people work at its disposal, including 600,000 workers in China.

Technology can stop the flow of e-waste. For example, the Internet of Things and cloud computing can contribute to dematerialisation and create better product tracking, take-back and recycling.

Nigeria’s 500,000 tonnes of e-waste

The Nigerian Government, the UN Environment and the Global Environment Facility have started working on a $2m investment into formal e-waste recycling in the West African nation, with $13m private sector investment also going toward the scheme.

Up to 100,000 people work in the informal e-waste sector in Nigeria, says the International Labour Organization, and the aim is to formalise the system so that workers gain safe employment while drawing value from Nigeria’s 500,000 tonnes of e-waste.

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“A circular economy brings with it tremendous environmental and economic benefits for us all. UN Environment is proud to support this innovative partnership with the Government of Nigeria and the Global Environment Facility and support the country’s efforts to kick start a circular electronics system. Our planet’s survival will depend on how well we retain the value of products within the system by extending their life,” said United Nations Environment Programme acting executive director Joyce Msuya.

E-waste management on a global scale

International Labour Organization director-general Guy Ryder said: “Thousands of tonnes of e-waste is disposed of by the world’s poorest workers in the worst of conditions, putting their health and lives at risk. We need better e-waste strategies and green standards as well as closer collaboration between governments, employers and unions to make the circular economy work for both people and planet.”

“The International Telecommunication Union has been raising awareness and guiding efforts to reduce and rethink e-waste since 2011. So I am delighted to see that a movement to promote a circular economy for electronics is now gaining ground. Together, with newly created partnerships such as the United Nations E-waste Coalition, we can transform waste into wealth, and deliver development benefits to all,” added Houlin Zhao, secretary-general of the International Telecommunication Union.

Solving the problem of e-waste

Seven UN organisations have partnered to address the challenge of e-waste, supported by the World Economic Forum and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development.

A joint report calls for a deliberate move to change the economic system which creates this waste, by moving from a linear model of making, using and disposing of goods to a circular economy that includes recycling.

The report is called “A New Circular Vision for Electronics – Time for a Global Reboot,” launched at Davos, and also calls for better material efficiency, recycling infrastructure and scaling up the volume and quality of recycled materials into supply chains.

It speculates that a mixture of policy and good management in the electronics sector around its waste could lead to the creation of millions of jobs.