Europe is producing the highest amount of e-waste per capita in the world, with Norway, Switzerland, Iceland, Denmark and the UK at the top of the global table.
Researchers at the academic and research arm of the United Nations have released what they say is the first report using a harmonised methodology to compare e-waste arisings and disposal across the globe.
The United Nations University study aims to inform policy and business decisions on setting up recycling systems for waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE).
It estimates that the total amount of e-waste generated in 2014 was 41.8 million tonnes, up from 33.8Mt in 2010. This is predicted to increase to 50Mt in 2018.
The growth is driven by rising sales and shortening life-cycles of electrical and electronic equipment, the report indicates.
Europe generated with 15.6kg of e-waste for every inhabitant, followed by Oceania at 15.2kg and the Americas at 12.2kg.
The report notes that despite EU regulations imposing WEEE collection targets, most materials are not captured by sound collection schemes. Around 8% of EU e-waste ends up in waste bins.
The researchers note both the opportunities and the risks posed by the increasing amount of electronic items entering global waste streams.
Around €10.4bn worth of gold was included in the global e-waste stream in 2014, the report estimates. Together with other components, such as iron, steel, copper, aluminium, silver, palladium and plastics, the total value of WEEE arisings was estimated at €48bn.
However, the waste stream also poses significant pollution risks, with 2.2 million tonnes of lead glass and 4,400 ozone-depleting substances estimated in 2014.
“Worldwide, e-waste constitutes a valuable ‘urban mine’ — a large potential reservoir of recyclable materials,” said UN under-secretary-general David Malone. “At the same time, the hazardous content of e-waste constitutes a ‘toxic mine’ that must be managed with extreme care.”
Only about 15.5% of global WEEE tonnages are documented and recycled with the highest standards, the researchers found.