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First Map of World E-Waste Highlights Staggering Extent of Growing Problem

People all over the world are snapping up consumer electronic devices like never before, and while smartphones, tablets and more portable PCs offer much in the way of benefits, their proliferation also highlights a glaring, dangerous oversight in our consumer-driven societies and manufacturing value chains, as well an urgently pressing environmental problem: e-waste.

The worldwide volume of end-of-life electronics is expected to surge higher by 1/3 by 2017, to 65.4 million metric tons per annum. That’s the equivalent of nearly 200 Empire State Buildings or 11 Great Pyramids of Giza, according to a forecast and study by “Solving the E-Waste Problem (StEP) Initiative,” a partnership of U.N. Organizations, industry, government and science organizations.

The staggering amount of e-waster generated globally often ends up in the most poverty-stricken parts of the worldE-Waste: The gift that keeps growing and growing

To highlight and zero-in on the issue, StEP has produced the world’s first global e-waste map: the StEP E-Waste World Map. The map presents comparable data from 184 countries, shows the estimated amount of electrical and electronic equipment (EEE – anything with a battery or a cord) put on the market and how much resulting e-waste is eventually generated (i.e. comes out of use or post-use storage destined for collection by a recycling company or disposal,” StEP explains in a press release.

Though increasing amounts of end-of-life consumer electronic devices are being recycled or reused in some regions, most consumers continue to simply throw them away. Growing mountains of e-waste are accumulating in countries around – and at what’s expected to be a much faster rate in coming years. All that e-waste poses significant threats to human health and well-being, as well as the health and integrity of land and water resources, ecosystems and biodiversity.

Accompanying the map is a report that characterizes “U.S. domestic and transboundary flows of used electronics no longer residing in households. Elaborated Jane Nishida, Acting Assistant Administrator, US-EPA Office of International and Tribal Affairs,

“EPA partnered with the United Nations University’s Solving the E-waste Problem (StEP) Initiative understanding that the growing e-waste problem can only be addressed effectively when we have better information on the global flows of used electronics. We are pleased that StEP, working with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the National Center for Electronics Recycling, was able to deliver a report that provides a scientific-based approach to generating information on US exports of used electronics.”

Nearly 48.9 million metric tons of e-waste was produced last year alone, “an average of 19.6 kg (43 pounds) for each of the world’s 7 billion people,” StEP highlights.

When it comes to e-waste and electrical and electronic equipment (EEE), China and the U.S. topped the ranks of countries in 2012. China produced 11.1 million tons of EEE and the U.S. 10 million, according to StEP’s data and calculations. The U.S. topped the world’s nations in terms of e-waste, producing 9.4 million tons, and China ranked second, producing 7.3 million.

The StEP e-waste report and world map are intended to help governments and companies better plan e-waste management.

Stated Ruediger Kuehr of United Nations University and Executive Secretary of the StEP Initiative,

“Although there is ample information about the negative environmental and health impacts of primitive e-waste recycling methods, the lack of comprehensive data has made it hard to grasp the full magnitude of the problem. We believe that this constantly updated, map-linked database showing e-waste volume by country together with legal texts will help lead to better awareness and policy making at the public and private levels.”

StEP offers a series of recommendations to address the e-waste issue. Among them:

  • Create trade codes for used electronic products to enable better tracking and distinction of shipments for example only for repair.
  • More open access to shipment level trade data to enable more accurate analyses of export flows
  • Greater reporting of re-export destinations to improve the accuracy of final destinations
  • Track flows over multiple years to discern trends

Featured image credit: transmediale, courtesy flickr

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