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‘Use AI and robotics to combat e-waste’

by Marco van der Hoeven

AI, automation, and advanced robotics are playing an increasingly significant role in waste treatment processes, according to the ITU Global E-waste monitor. Specifically, the implementation and optimization of waste management technologies using AI are key factors in enhancing the efficiency of e-waste management. This includes improving recycling processes and reducing losses of valuable materials, such as metals, from e-waste.

The report, a detailed analysis of electronic waste (e-waste) issues worldwide, highlights the increasing challenge of e-waste management. According to the report, in 2022, the global production of e-waste reached 62 billion kilograms, a significant increase from 34 billion kilograms in 2010, and is expected to escalate to 82 billion kilograms by 2030. This e-waste comprised predominantly of metals (31 billion kilograms), plastics (17 billion kilograms), and other materials, with approximately 19 billion kilograms of these materials being recycled.

Despite the growth in e-waste, only 22.3% (13.8 billion kilograms) of the e-waste generated in 2022 was formally collected and recycled, indicating a lag in recycling efforts compared to e-waste generation. Regionally, Europe leads in e-waste collection and recycling with a rate of 42.8%, while African countries record rates below 1%. In Asia, which accounts for nearly half of the world’s e-waste, there is a noted deficiency in e-waste management infrastructure.

Economically, the metals contained in 2022’s e-waste held an estimated value of USD 91 billion. However, the annual cost of e-waste management worldwide is estimated at USD 37 billion. In terms of policy and legislation, as of June 2023, 81 countries have adopted e-waste policies, covering 72% of the global population, but enforcement remains a challenge.

Environmentally, the report underlines the release of harmful substances due to improper e-waste management, including significant quantities of mercury and plastics containing brominated flame retardants. The future projections and scenarios presented in the report for 2030 show varying degrees of optimism regarding improvements in e-waste collection and recycling rates.

An emerging concern noted in the report is the rapid increase in waste from photovoltaic panels, with projections indicating a quadrupling from 0.6 billion kilograms in 2022 to 2.4 billion kilograms in 2030. Additionally, the report draws attention to the relationship between e-waste and digital transformation, underscoring the need for responsible e-waste management as a critical aspect of sustainable digitalization. This comprehensive report serves as an essential resource for policymakers, industry stakeholders, and environmental organizations in understanding and addressing the complexities of global e-waste management.

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