Photograph by Zoran Milich, Getty Images
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An employee examines electronic waste waiting to be recycled at the Electronic Recyclers International plant in Holliston, Massachusetts. The U.S. does better than many countries at recovering e-waste, but many challenges remain as the glut grows.

Photograph by Zoran Milich, Getty Images

Each U.S. Family Trashes 400 iPhones’ Worth of E-Waste a Year

A new report warns of billions of dollars lost around the world as countries fail to recycle a glowing glut of electronics waste.

Imagine a 176-pound (80 kilogram) pile of discarded products with a battery or plug in your living room. That’s how much e-waste the average American household of four throws out every year.

Around the world, as incomes rise and prices fall, the yearly e-waste mountain is growing, reaching 44.7 million metric tonnes (Mt) in 2016, according to the latest data available, released Wednesday. That includes old refrigerators, television sets, vacuum cleaners, hair dryers, mobile phones, computers, and much more. That amount would fill 1.23 million 18-wheel (40-ton) trucks—put them nose to tail and they form a line from New York to Bangkok and back.

This e-waste mountain is expected to grow another 17 percent by 2021 to 52.2 million metric tonnes. This makes it the fastest growing part of the world's domestic waste stream, according to “The Global E-waste Monitor 2017,“ which published Wednesday. The Monitor is a collaborative effort of the United Nations University (UNU), the International Telecommunication Union, and the International Solid Waste Association.

In 2016, the world e-waste average was 13.5 pounds (6.1 kilograms) per person, or for a family of four 54 pounds (24.5 kg). That’s 3.3 times less than the average American/Canadian family.

Towers of TVs

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What happened to all those big, old tube TVs that were replaced by flat screens? It entirely depends on where you live. In the U.S., about 70 percent were collected separately, although some states do better than others.

Some of the old TVs were recycled domestically, but significant amounts were exported to Mexico, China, and Nigeria. Electronic goods like TVs, laptops, printers, and so on are considered hazardous waste (because they often contain toxic heavy metals like lead and mercury). There is a ban on international exports under the Basel Convention, but the U.S. did not ratify this. That has left the transport of spent e-waste overseas a controversial practice. (See photos of workers in India “mining” toxic e-waste.)

About 30 percent of the e-waste in the U.S. gets landfilled, incinerated, recycled informally, exported for dumping, or simply left somewhere. That’s the fate of 80 percent of the world’s e-waste in 2016, according to the Monitor.

“We’re throwing away at least $55 billion in recoverable materials by failing to recycle all of that e-waste,” said Vanessa Gray of the International Telecommunication Union in an interview.

These recoverable materials include gold, silver, copper, coltan, platinum, palladium, and other high-value metals. If all the metals were recovered from 100,000 phones, they'd yield an estimated 5.3 pounds (2.4 kilograms) of gold, more than 1,984 pounds (900 kilograms) of copper, 55 pounds (25 kilograms) of silver, and more. That's about $250,000 dollars worth of metals, depending on current prices.

“We’re wasting valuable resources and risk future production of these devices without recycling the materials,” said Ruediger Kuehr, head of UNU’s Sustainable Cycles Programme in Bonn, Germany.

The Consumer’s Role

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A young man dismantles old laptops in Accra, Ghana.

Electronics have a big eco footprint, meaning their manufacture consumes a lot of energy and water, along with valuable and sometimes scarce resources, making recycling and recovery a key way to reduce impact on the planet. However, recycling e-waste isn’t always easy, Kuehr told National Geographic. A mobile phone can contain 40 to 60 different elements. There is often little interest by manufacturers in making electronic devices repairable or easily recyclable, he said, in a constant pursuit of new sales.

While the public are asking for healthier, chemical-free foods, few are looking for “healthy” electronics. “Consumers are only interested in price and performance. That needs to change,” said Gray.

One thing the public would like to see are universal, interchangeable chargers for phones and laptops. “It’s shocking that manufacturers needlessly require different chargers from one model to the next,” Gray said. Last year the ITU approved a new environmentally friendly standard for a universal charger for laptops and other portable devices. But uptake by the industry remains to be seen.

Shifting the business model to providing services rather than products could also help reduce the amounts of e-waste, said Kuehr. Car-sharing, which is becoming more popular in urban centers, is one example, because people don’t need to buy their own wheels. Cloud computing and storage are others.

“There are huge opportunities here for smart entrepreneurs,” said Gray.