ITU: Why We Must Reduce E-waste


August 9, 2021


Dr. Syed Ismail Shah’s opening remarks at the Tech for a Better Planet Symposium.

Let me start by pointing out just how important staying connected is today. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted just how critical digital technologies are for communicating, learning, working, doing business, and interacting with the society and economy.

However, we must be aware of the impact this has on the environment around us. Climate change is a profound global challenge that is transforming the face of the world. At current rates, scientists predict that two-thirds of all avian, mammal, butterfly, and plant species will be extinct by the end of this century. We at the ITU understand the gravity of this challenge. To do our part, we are exploring ICT use cases, and building partnerships, standards, and international consensus on where and how ICT can help address climate change.

Scientists predict that two-thirds of all avian, mammal, butterfly, and plant species will be extinct by the end of this century.

Through our Study Group 5 at the ITU standardization bureau, we have taken the lead in setting standards for the energy efficiency of ICT equipment  as well as studies on methodologies for evaluating the effect of ICT on climate change and publishing guidelines for using ICT in an eco-friendly way.

Additionally, the ITU development bureau is taking the lead on the issue of e-waste or WEEE (waste electrical and electronic equipment). Globally, every living person annually produces 7.3 kg of e-waste, While developed countries produce a sizable amount, e-waste is piling up in the developing world.

According to the ITU Global E-waste Monitor 2020, some 4.1 billion people were connected to the Internet and the number of mobile-cellular telephone subscriptions is currently greater than the global population.

However, this success also has downsides. Higher levels of disposable income, urbanization, and industrialization are leading to growing amounts of throw-away ICT, and thus, e-waste. Indeed, a record 53.6 million metric tonnes of e-waste – discarded products with a battery or plug such as computers and mobile phones – is reported to have been generated worldwide in 2019, up from 9.2 million metric tonnes five years ago. Of this, only 17.4% e-waste was officially documented as formally collected and recycled.

This problem is particularly acute in Asia. We generated the greatest volume of e-waste in 2019 — some 24.9 million metric tonnes,  followed by the Americas (13.1 million) and Europe (12 million). Africa and Oceania generated 2.9 million and 0.7 million, respectively.

These statistics are extremely troubling: Toxic and hazardous substances are found in many types of electronic equipment and pose a severe risk to human health and the environment if not handled in an environmentally sound manner. We need to do more, especially since the ITU predicts global e-waste will reach 74 million metric tonnes by 2030, almost double the 2014 figure.

Toxic and hazardous substances are found in many types of electronic equipment and pose a severe risk to human health and the environment.

In recognition of this challenge, in 2018 the ITU’s Plenipotentiary Conference set the target to increase the global e-waste recycling rate to 30% by 2023. Our member states are striving to meet this goal, and the number of countries that have adopted a national e-waste policy, legislation, or regulation has increased from 61 to 78 between 2014 and 2019. In many regions, however, regulatory advances are slow, enforcement is low, and collection and proper e-waste management are poor.

The ITU stands ready to assist. We have a programme dedicated to e-waste policy and regulatory development, where member states can request ITU’s technical assistance and capacity building support.

Despite these stark figures, we must not forget the opportunities of the circular economy. What we know today is that only 17.4 per cent of 2019’s e-waste was collected and recycled. This means that gold, silver, copper, platinum and other high-value, recoverable materials conservatively valued at US$57 billion — a sum greater than the GDP of most countries – were mostly dumped or burned rather than being collected for treatment and reuse. If we use this waste productively, there will be unprecedented opportunities for job creation and economic growth.

It is widely acknowledged that the issue of climate change is rapidly emerging as a global concern, which needs a global response. I invite all stakeholders to work collectively on issues and policies that will shape the future of the generations to come, so that they will have a brighter and cleaner future.

ITU remains ready to partner in line with the needs and priorities of our member states.

Read more about the work of ITU.

About the Author

Dr. Syed Ismail Shah, Area Representative for South East Asia & other member states in the Asia Pacific, ITU

Dr. Shah is a renowned ICT professional, with expertise and experience spanning cellular, Internet, and digital technologies. He is a strong proponent of using ICT to create smarter societies.

Dr. Shah holds a Ph.D in Electrical Engineering from the University of Pittsburgh in the US, and is a registered professional engineer and Senior Member of IEEE (US) and Member of the Institute of Electronics Information and Communication Engineers (Japan). He has published more than 100 technical papers.

Disclaimer: Any views and/or opinions expressed in this post by individual authors or contributors are their personal views and/or opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views and/or opinions of Huawei Technologies.

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