How ITU is stemming the e-waste surge with standards, studies and more

e-waste recycling internet waste e-waste recycling internet waste

With the theme of ‘protecting the planet with standards’, this year’s World Standards Day also falls on International E-Waste Day, which encourages the proper disposal of e-waste and promotes its reuse and recycling worldwide. This year the theme of International E-Waste Day is ‘education’ which aims to encourage a new generation of responsible consumers.

This dovetailing of days could not be timelier, as e-waste surges globally – to the tune of 21 per cent in 5 years. In fact, the weight equivalent of 350 Queen-Mary-2-sized cruise ships of it were estimated to have been generated last year: a record 53.6 million metric tonnes (Mt) or 7.3 kilograms for every human on Earth.

This year for International E-Waste Day, ITU partnered with the WEEE Forum to prepare a thought paper on the topic of ‘Internet Waste’ that focuses on end of life management of the ICT equipment that supports our increasing connectivity. Calling for collaborative e-waste management across the supply chain for ICT equipment, the paper highlights the drivers of growing connectivity and the e-waste impacts of data centres, mobile network infrastructure and connected devices, and the role of international standards in facilitating responsible e-waste management.

Read the Internet Waste thought paper here.

An ICT-linked problem


ICT infrastructure provides the basis for all the benefits that come with connectivity. As discussed in the paper, all benefits come at a material cost. The growth in data traffic, storage and processing driven by the heightened demand for online services – especially during the COVID-19 pandemic – requires vast ICT infrastructure and material components, which eventually results in the generation of e-waste.

The environmental impacts linked to ICTs include higher energy consumption, carbon emissions, raw material scarcity and e-waste. Formally known as waste electrical and electronic equipment or (WEEE), e-waste refers to discarded household or business items that contain circuitry or electrical components with a battery or power supply.

Tackling e-waste with ITU standards


Standards are critical to the mission of minimizing e-waste globally and to help the ICT sector become more circular. By sharing expert knowledge and building consensus, standards help reduce development time and costs, establish common understanding on key terminologies, and lower barriers to entry for innovators and key stakeholders.

With global e-waste predicted to reach 74 Mt by 2030, ITU standards can help us to ensure that this does not come at the cost of our health and environment.

data centre life cycle Internet Waste
Taking the example of data centres in the figure above, ITU standards address the entire lifecycle of ICTs from their production to their disposal. Source: Internet Waste thought paper.

Within the context of the ‘Internet Waste’ paper, ITU’s ‘green ICT’ standards provide industry with frameworks to design waste out of their products and contribute to the global shift towards a circular economy. Improving the design of ICT equipment enables more efficient material reuse through refurbishment, upgrading and recycling of electronic equipment.

ITU standards also offer guidance to both formal and informal recyclers on how to safely handle e-waste and extract valuable metals from e-waste without compromising human health or damaging the environment. In addition, standards help stakeholders build consensus on how to define and quantify the content of e-waste which can in turn improve the control of transboundary movement of e-waste.

ITU’s role in reducing e-waste

ITU is among the leading organizations actively contributing to global efforts to reduce e-waste not only by developing international standards through its Standardization sector (ITU-T), but also by tracking global e-waste data and developing e-waste policies through its Development sector (ITU-D). Tackling e-waste is also instrumental in the achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), supporting SDGs 7, 11, 12 and 13 in particular.

ITU’s commitment to reducing e-waste is also reflected in the Connect 2030 Agenda, where Member States committed to increase the global e-waste recycling rate to 30 per cent.

Since 2014, the number of countries that have adopted a national e-waste policy, legislation or regulation has increased from 61 to 78. While this is a positive trend, it remains far from the 50 per cent target set by ITU.

To help achieve these targets, ITU-D provides a dedicated programme to e-waste policy and regulatory development, where Member States can request ITU technical assistance.

The ITU standards developed by ITU-T Study Group 5 (Environment, climate change and circular economy) enable the assessment of ICTs’ environmental impact over their entire lifecycle and guide a circular approach to ICT industry activities. They provide authoritative guidance on the development of frameworks to achieve sustainable e-waste management. And they address ‘extended producer responsibility’ in the ICT industry, the concept of integrating environmental sustainability into core business activities.
data centre e-waste reuse
Data centres that support Internet connectivity contain numerous valuable raw materials such as gold, copper, indium and tantalum. Source: Internet Waste thought paper.

ITU is a member of the UN E-waste Coalition and the Solve the E-waste Problem (StEP). In addition, ITU is a founding member of the Global E-waste Statistics Partnership which helps improve the quality of e-waste statistics by building national capacity through statistics trainings. The Partnership recently launched the 2020 Global E-Waste Monitor, which provides comprehensive insights and for leaders to address the global e-waste challenge.

Learn more about ITU’s activities on e-waste here.