1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

5 things you need to know about e-waste

Tamsin Walker
January 24, 2019

Never have we been in possession of as many electronic gadgets as now, in this brave new world or ours. But what happens to them when they stop working? All too often... not that much.

Ausstellung von mehrr als 6.000 Handys älterer Generationen
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/K. Mayama

1. How much e-waste do we generate globally?

Worldwide, we are now producing around 50 million tons of electronic and electrical waste annually according toa new joint report published by seven UN agencies. In terms of weight, that's equivalent to all the commercial airliners ever built.

If we continue to consume and discard at the current rate, the United Nations University (UNU) predicts an increase of up to 120 million tons in the next 30 years.

A heap of old printers and other electronic goods
A hidden source of cash?Image: DW/B. Thoma

2. How much of what we produce is recycled?

Only 20 percent of our e-waste is formally recycled

According to a new report by the UN and supported by the World Economic Forum and World Business Council for Sustainable Development, millions of people around the world work in the informal e-waste sector.

Given the toxins in electronic waste, this often has negative health implications.

3. What happens to the remaining 80 percent?

Some of it ends up in landfill, which leads to toxins leaching into the environment. Some is incinerated, but this generates emissions. 

Men standing beside small fires and old electronic waste
Clouds of choking smoke from the burning of discarded electrical goodsImage: picture alliance/dpa/K. Nietfeld

4. Which countries generate most e-waste?

An earlier UNU study found that the US and China produced the most electronic waste in 2016, with 7.2 and 6.3 million tons respectively. It classified e-waste as discarded products with a battery or a plug.

Next came Japan with 2.1 million tons.

5. How valuable is e-waste?

It's valuable. Experts say a ton of e-waste contains as many as 100 times more gold than a ton of gold ore.

The estimated material value of our current e-waste is more than $62.5 billion (€55 million) annually.