Vapes, chargers, and other ‘invisible’ e-waste are a 9-million-ton problem

“Invisible” e-waste — from disposable vapes to toys and tangles of cables — is piling up and robbing supply chains of valuable materials. A new analysis counts up all the small electronics people often don’t recognize as e-waste, and the numbers are wild.

The weight of all the vapes tossed out annually across the world equals three Brooklyn Bridges, it estimates. Altogether, vapes and other small consumer items considered “invisible” weigh in at 9 billion kilograms (9 million metric tons) a year. That’s like half a million dump trucks worth of electric toothbrushes, ugly holiday sweaters adorned with LEDs, drones, and other small electronics. Lined up bumper to bumper, those trucks would span from Nairobi to Rome.

The weight of all the vapes tossed out annually across the world equals three Brooklyn Bridges

The problem with trashing those items is that electronics often contain hazardous materials like lead or mercury that might leach out of landfills to contaminate soil and water. Hoarding the devices at home isn’t ideal, either. If those items were recycled instead, manufacturers could recover literal gold and other precious materials. That cuts down e-waste and potentially even the need to mine for as much raw material.

While discarded appliances and computers have posed problems for decades, the new analysis shines a light on often overlooked trends that have grown into a global mess. Disposable vapes are everywhere. New iterations of devices often come with new plugs that require new chargers. The Internet of Things has made everything connected.

“Consumers very often don’t realize that some items contain electronics, and therefore these items don’t end up in the right [place], and this is a loss,” Magdalena Charytanowicz, communication manager for the nonprofit Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Forum, said in a press briefing.

What’s lost when we don’t recycle those invisible electronics? Roughly $9.5 billion in materials — primarily iron, copper, and gold — that could have been recovered in 2019 alone, according to WEEE Forum. Copper-laden cables discarded last year could have wrapped around the world 107 times. Demand for copper, important for renewable energy, electric vehicles, and more, is expected to skyrocket this decade.

Vapes (like other rechargeable devices) that wind up in the trash are a waste of lithium, a key battery mineral that the world is going to need a lot of to transition to cleaner energy and transportation. “Millions of electronic cigarettes are being thrown away in a dustbin every single week … it’s an issue of great concern,” WEEE Forum director-general Pascal Leroy said in the press briefing.

The Brussels-based Forum commissioned the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) to conduct the new analysis on invisible electronics. The estimates are based on UNITAR’s global e-waste monitor, an international report last conducted in 2020 that tracks all kinds of e-waste.

Around 55 percent of e-waste is collected in Europe, thanks in large part to laws that require manufacturers to manage the waste their products generate. Many other parts of the world lack similar Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) laws and the recycling infrastructure needed to responsibly take apart discarded products and mine them for valuable materials. The collection rate for e-waste globally is just 17 percent.

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