17 September 2019: A UN report highlights future e-waste scenarios to address one of the world’s fastest growing solid waste streams, which has grown from 20 million to 50 million tonnes per year since 2000.

The report titled, ‘Future E-waste Scenarios,’ explains that, under a baseline scenario, the amount of e-waste will more than double by 2050 to approximately 111 million tonnes per year. The report was published by the UN University (UNU)-hosted Solving the E-waste Problem (StEP) Initiative and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

The publication emphasizes the importance of the ways in which industries, policies and consumers are reacting, explains that creating sustainable production and consumption systems for electronics cannot be achieved under a business-as-usual (BAU) scenario, and calls for a drastic change in the electronics sector to meet the growing demand and address technological evolution, which is often unpredictable.

The generation of e-waste for rapidly growing economies is expected to increase.

While new technologies are advancing energy efficiency, the report explains that no economic incentive exists for recycling materials from e-waste. E-waste collection rates are only at around 20%, and most of e-waste is not properly treated.

The report details three scenarios related to the future of e-waste:

  • The BAU “linear growth” scenario, which involves increased electronics innovation, production and consumption, might result in less expensive products in the short term, but long-term costs will include environmental footprints, toxicity, and short-lived, single-use and disposable electronic products.
  • Under the “reactive approach” scenario, where industry will have to comply with stricter regulations, the e-waste situation may improve locally but its impact will be outsourced to countries with weaker environmental regulations, and informal activities and compliance costs may be transferred to consumers.
  • A “proactive path” is the best alternative, according to the report, under which industry will take the lead towards more sustainable production and consumption through, for example: manufacturers using innovative business models that prioritize lifetime extension and recycling of electronic products; and more circular business practices that help prevent e-waste generation.

The report warns that electronics use and the resulting generation of e-waste is expected to increase, especially for rapidly growing economies that have not yet been overwhelmed by “the myriad of e-products that come with economic prosperity.” All stakeholders, the report argues, including producers, users, e-waste collectors, recyclers and policymakers, will have to take significant action to ensure a sustainable production and consumption system for e-products.

The StEP Initiative is a network of e-waste experts and a multi-stakeholder platform for designing strategies that address all dimensions of electronics in an increasingly digitized world. It applies an integrated and science-rooted approach to create salient solutions to global e-waste challenges throughout the entire life cycle of electronics. [Publication: Future E-waste Scenarios] [UNU Press Release]