The World Generated 4,500 Eiffel Towers' Worth Of Electronic Waste Last Year

And we don't know where most of it went.
Ali Raza, 21, a scrap worker breaks apart a computer to retrieve metal in a makeshift workshop in Karachi, Pakistan.
Ali Raza, 21, a scrap worker breaks apart a computer to retrieve metal in a makeshift workshop in Karachi, Pakistan.
Athar Hussain / Reuters

The world produced 44.7 million metric tons of electronic waste in 2016, according to a new United Nations report. That’s equivalent to the weight of 4,500 Eiffel Towers. Laid out in a line, the waste would stretch from New York to Bangkok and back ― about 17,300 miles.

Global e-waste ― discarded electronic and electrical goods such as cellphones, laptops, televisions, refrigerators and electrical toys – rose 8 percent from 2014 to 2016, according to the Global E-waste Monitor 2017 report, published on Wednesday.

“One of the key findings is the amount of electronic waste is growing and that’s both in terms of absolute value as well as per inhabitant,” said Vanessa Grey of the U.N.’s International Telecommunication Union, a co-author of the report.

The falling cost of electrical items is one reason for the waste increase, according to the U.N. There are now more mobile phone subscriptions than people in the world, and about half of the world population (3.6 billion people) uses the internet.

The biggest e-waste culprits per capita were Australia and New Zealand, where about 38 pounds of waste were produced per person, and only 6 percent was formally collected and recycled. The Americas produced about 26 pounds per person, and collected only 17 percent.

E-waste is the world’s fastest growing waste stream, and the bad news is that its growth shows no sign of abating. The report predicted e-waste would increase an additional 17 percent by 2021, reaching 52.2 million metric tons.

Sorting e-waste in China.
Sorting e-waste in China.
United Nations

Despite burgeoning production, very little is recycled. Just 20 percent was reported as collected and recycled in 2016. The report estimates that 4 percent is thrown into normal waste. But there is much less clarity on where remaining 76 percent ends up.

It’s probably dumped, it’s burned, it’s traded or it’s recycled, but then very likely under inferior conditions so that there’s obviously huge impacts on the environment, but also on human beings,” said Grey. And, of course, there are the old gadgets languishing in people’s drawers and closets.

The impacts of e-waste are stark. It often contains toxic metals, such as lead, which leach into the environment and pollute soil and water supplies. It also releases toxic fumes, which have major health implications for the often informal waste pickers in low-income countries who dismantle the waste with little, if any, safety equipment.

But the problem is not just environmental. There’s an economic loss to dumping e-waste. The U.N. calculates the amount of recoverable materials lost ― which include gold, silver and copper ― amounts to $55 billion (£41 billion).

“The metals that are extracted from e-waste are arguably the cleanest, lowest CO2-emitting, most fair and conflict-free metals in the world,” said Joost de Kluijver, director of the Netherlands-based social enterprise, Closing the Loop. “This leads to a huge opportunity: to produce items that use urban mined metals, instead of the much more polluting virgin mined metals.”

The report calls for new business models which, for example, rent rather than sell mobile phones to customers and ensure value is extracted from the old phones once they are returned.

De Kluijver pointed to Apple, with its focus on urban mining, and Fairphone, the maker of ethical modular phones, as examples of businesses making progress on the issue. But he said this knowledge needs to be shared globally to make a real difference.

Action is also needed at government level. While 66 percent of countries have national e-waste legislation, according to the report, it’s not translating into action. This is partly because of a serious lack of data. Only 41 countries collect official data on e-waste, said Gray, adding: “If you don’t know the basic statistics, well, then you really don’t know what’s happening.”

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