Research & Reports

UN, World Economy Forum and WBCSD unite to address e-waste challenges

Seven United Nations (UN) entities have come together, supported by the World Economic Forum, and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) to call for an overhaul of the current electronics system, with the aim of supporting international efforts to address e-waste challenges.

The report calls for a systemic collaboration with major brands, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), academia, trade unions, civil society and associations in a deliberative process to reorient the system and reduce the waste of resources each year.

Each year, approximately 50 million tonnes of e-waste are discarded – the weight of more than all commercial airliners ever made. In terms of material value, this is worth more than $62.5 billion, which is more than the GDP of most countries.

Less than 20 per cent of this recycled formally, informally, millions of people worldwide (over 600,000 in China alone) work to dispose of e-waste, much of it done in working conditions harmful to both health and the environment.

“Global e-waste is the fastest growing waste stream and presents societal and environmental risk,” said Peter Bakker, president and CEO, WBCSD.

“This summary clearly lays out why we must act at scale, now, and collaborate between business, international organisations, governments and NGOs. WBCSD is committed, through Factor10 and the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, to achieving a world where waste has no place.”

The report, A New Circular Vision for Electronics – Time for a Global Reboot, launched in Davos, said technologies such as cloud computing and the Internet of Things (IoT), support gradual “dematerialisation” of the electronics industry.

Meanwhile, to capture the global value of materials in the e-waste and create global circular value-chains, the report also points to the use of new technology to create service business models, better product tracking and manufacture or retailer take-back programs.

“The circular economy offers incredible benefits, but it does require us to be less transactional with our resources, stewarding them through the economy rather than throwing them our after one use,” said Dominic Waughray, head of the Centre for Global Public Goods, member of the Managing Board, World Economic Forum.

“The Fourth Industrial Revolution offers us the ability to rethink resource flows, while also providing better services to consumers. It’s time to unlock that innovation potential.

“The innovative capacity of the electronics sector and the value inside the materials in electronics makes it the best place to start.”

The report notes that material efficiency, recycling infrastructure and scaling up the volume and quality of recycled materials to meet the needs of electronics supply-chains will all be essential for future production. And if the electronics sector is supported with the right policy mix and managed in the right way, it could lead to the creation of millions of decent jobs worldwide.

The new report supports the work of the E-waste Coalition, which includes:

  • International Labour Organisation (ILO);
  • International Telecommunications Union (ITU);
  • UN Environment Programme (UN Environments);
  • UN Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO);
  • UN Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR);
  • UN University (UNU); and
  • Secretariats of the Basel and Stockholm conventions.

“E-waste is a growing global challenge that poses a serious threat to the environment and human health worldwide,” said Stephan Sicars, director, department of environment, UNIDO.

“To minimise this threat, UNIDO works with various UN agencies and other partners on a range of e-waste projects, all of which are underpinned by a circular economy approach.

“This UN coalition is taking steps towards a cleaner, more sustainable and safer future, and in doing so, demonstrating how such cooperation can lead to transformational results where the total is greater than the sum of its parts.”