Every year, 7.3 billion electronic toys are thrown out around the world, collectively weighing 10 times the mass of New York City’s Empire State Building.
LED sneakers, power tools, cables and e-cigarettes are just some examples of the millions of electronic items discarded every year that most consumers do not consider “e-waste.” But throwing them into normal landfill is potentially hazardous and a waste of valuable raw materials.
In a new study, commissioned by the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Forum, researchers from the United Nations Institute for Training and Research analyzed this so-called “invisible” e-waste to determine how much was being produced every year, and which items were the worst offenders.
In total, they estimated that over 9 billion kilograms—or 9 million tons—of invisible e-waste was tossed annually, over 380 times the weight of the Titanic. And over a third of this came from a rather surprising source.
Coming in at No. 1, with over 7294 million pieces thrown away annually, was electronic toys. Things like racing cars, music toys, drones and electric trains. In second place was household monitoring and control equipment, like heat and smoke alarms, and third was household tools, like drills, saws and lawn mowers.
“Toys is the most surprising source of ‘invisible e-waste’ as it’s the biggest number, but also tools, small IT cables, and also vapes,” Pascal Leroy, director-general of the WEEE Forum, told Newsweek.
The full list is as follows:
|Item||Million kilograms||Million pieces|
|Personal care equipment, e.g. toothbrushes, hairdryers, razors||391||711|
|Small IT equipment, e.g. routers, keyboards, external drives||763||1891|
|Small consumer electronics, e.g. headphones, remote controls||347||910|
|Small lighting equipment, e.g. LED lamps||365||4118|
|Household tools, e.g. drills, saws, lawn mowers||1047||421|
|Toys, e.g. car racing sets, electric trains, drones, musical toys||3234||7294|
|Household medical equipment||3||14|
|Household monitoring, e.g. heat and smoke alarms||1336||5476|
|Total Invisible E-waste||9055|
Other than filling up global landfills, why is throwing out this invisible e-waste such an issue? Firstly, e-waste represents a rich source of rare metals and materials that vary between products. “Batteries typically contain cobalt, lithium, while all cables contain copper,” Leroy said. “Smartphones contain almost all elements in the periodic table. [If these products are thrown out,] these materials cannot be tapped into and recycled into new products, so they need to be mined instead to satisfy demand. Mining is a much more ecologically damaging activity compared to urban mining [i.e., recovering and using a city’s waste materials.]”
In total, nearly $57 billion of rare metals and raw materials get thrown out every year in the form of electronic waste. One sixth of this, amounting to roughly $10 billion, is invisible e-waste.
These products may also contain hazardous substances that can leach into their environment. “Lead, mercury, hexavalent chromium, cadmium, PBDE are hazardous substances and while their use in new products has been restricted, they still come back as waste and sit in many products,” Leroy said. “If not properly treated, substances like lead, mercury or cadmium can leach into and contaminate the soil and water.”
This study highlights the importance of correct disposal of these products and clearer messaging over what constitutes electronic waste. “People should be told to dispose of e-waste responsibly, by returning it to the shop or to an official collection point,” Leroy said.
Invisible e-waste will be the focus of this year’s International E-Waste Day, held by the WEEE on Saturday.