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Slump in electronics sales due to pandemic could help tackle e-waste

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By Matthew Sparkes

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The covid-19 pandemic has caused a slump in the sale of electronic devices and a resulting fall in electronic waste, UN researchers have found. This may offer governments an opportunity to improve e-waste recycling, but the decline in sales has mostly affected poorer countries, which could widen the digital divide.

In 2019, the global population created 53.6 million tonnes of e-waste – discarded electronics that contain toxic substances such as brominated flame retardants, lead and mercury. East and South-East Asia accounted for over 22 million tonnes of this waste, while Europe and North America generated slightly less than 20 million tonnes.

Despite an increase in sales of devices like laptops and games consoles driven by home working and demand for entertainment during isolation and quarantine, the sale of electronic equipment worldwide decreased by 6.4 per cent in the first nine months of 2020 compared with sales estimates based on previous years.

But there was a 30 per cent fall in sales in low and middle-income countries and only a 5 per cent decline in high-income nations, showing that the impact on quality of life was largely confined to poorer countries.

This overall drop translates to 4.9 million tonnes less electronic waste being produced in the first nine months of 2020, says a report from the UN, which suggests that nations use this as an opportunity to improve e-waste management.

Report co-author Kees Baldé at the United Nations University in Tokyo, Japan, says: “This allows a little bit of breathing space, but not sufficient to solve the problem. We’re recycling 17 per cent of our [e-waste] refuse, so we must increase more than fivefold in order to solve the problem.”

Baldé says the issue could return as an even larger problem as lockdowns lift if there is a rebound in sales caused by pent-up demand and high levels of saved cash, but that it is hard to estimate the scale of such an effect.

There is currently a global chip shortage caused by drought, trade wars and the pandemic, but Baldé believes that the figures in the report predate the worst of it, which came in the fourth quarter of last year. However, he suggests that richer countries are likely to have better access to what supply there is, helped by cash grants and government subsidies to keep economies buoyant that are likely to bolster disposable income and support sales.

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