Electronic waste: Too valuable for the trash can – What can solutions for sustainable consumption look like?

In Germany, over 97% of 14- to 19-year-olds owned smartphones in 2020 (Statista, 2021). These, like other electrical devices, are disposed of at the end of their lifespan and become e-waste. Thus, in 2019, the world produced 53.6 million tonnes of e-waste, and the quantity has increased significantly in recent decades. The majority of this originates from Asia, America and Europe. On the one hand, the export of e-waste to developing countries offers a potential source of income for those who sort, dismantle or recycle the waste. Still, on the other hand, it leads to a wide range of social, environmental, economic and health-related consequences. Numerous toxic additives and substances can be released into the environment or endanger workers’ health if the e-waste is not disposed of properly. If electrical equipment is landfilled and not recycled, valuable resources such as gold, cobalt and copper are also lost (Forti et al., 2020).

However, there is a need to not only to find sustainable ways to address e-waste problems in developing countries but also, and more importantly, to find solutions that address current consumption and production in industrialized countries as drivers of this issue.

Globally, these developments are mainly driven by improper disposal, higher levels of income, urbanization (spread of urban lifestyles) and industrialization (Forti et al., 2020). In addition, electrical appliances often have an integrated design. This complicates the recovery of installed raw materials and reparability. Additionally, it leads to the problem that individual components are not modularly replaceable or expandable (e.g., battery or memory). As a result, even a minor defect can lead to a total breakdown, even though most technology could still function perfectly (Laser, 2020). In addition, rapid technological progress and the linking of new devices to contracts (e.g., for cell phones) can be observed. Thus, devices quickly become obsolete, and the resulting shortened lifespan leads to consumers feeling compelled to replace electronic goods at ever shorter intervals (WBGU, 2019).


What sustainable solutions and potentials exist to reduce the increasing amount of e-waste and to strengthen sustainable consumption? How are these approaches and possibilities discussed in science and politics? How can the European Union, but also each individual, contribute to solving this problem through their actions? What barriers exist that make it difficult to implement these solutions, and how can we overcome them?

The examination of the social, ecological and economic consequences of the rapidly increasing consumption of electronic devices can help the students question the current production and their own and social consumption trends. As a result, they are enabled to reflect on their own actions and aspects of justice and distribution and, based on this, identify their own sustainable solutions in this context.

Must-Read: The team should read the following before the kick-off:

WBGU – Wissenschaftlicher Beirat der Bundesregierung Globale Umweltveränderungen (2019): Unsere gemeinsame digitale Zukunft. Kapitel 5.2.5: Digitalisierung: vom Elektroschrottproblem zur Lösung für Kreislaufwirtschaft?. Berlin: WBGU. https://www.wbgu.de/fileadmin/user_upload/wbgu/publikationen/hauptgutachten/hg2019/pdf/wbgu_hg2019.pdf.

Additional Literature:

Forti, V., Baldé, C. P., Kuehr, R., & Bel, G. (2020). The Global E-waste Monitor 2020. United Nations University (UNU), International Telecommunication Union (ITU) & International Solid Waste Association (ISWA), Bonn/Geneva/Rotterdam. https://www.invest-data.com/eWebEditor/uploadfile/2020071100243938206180.pdf

Oguchi, M., Murakami, S., Sakanakura, H., Kida, A., & Kameya, T. (2011). A preliminary categorization of end-of-life electrical and electronic equipment as secondary metal resources. Waste Management, 31(9), 2150–2160. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wasman.2011.05.009

Sousa, R., Agante, E., Cerejeira, J., & Portela, M. (2018). EEE fees and the WEEE system – A model of efficiency and income in European countries. Waste Management, 79, 770–780. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wasman.2018.08.008

Statista. (2021, June 30). Smartphones – Penetrationsrate in Deutschland nach Altersgruppe 2020 | Statista. https://de.statista.com/statistik/daten/studie/459963/umfrage/anteil-der-smartphone-nutzer-in-deutschland-nach-altersgruppe/

WBGU – Wissenschaftlicher Beirat der Bundesregierung Globale Umweltveränderungen (2019): Unsere gemeinsame digitale Zukunft. Berlin: WBGU.

Wilkinson, A., & Williams, I. D. (2020). Why Do (W)EEE Hoard? The Effect of Consumer Behaviour on the Release of Home Entertainment Products into the Circular Economy. Detritus (12), 18–33. https://doi.org/10.31025/2611-4135/2020.14004

Scientific Partner

Supporting Researcher:

Robyn Blake-Rath is doing her PhD at the Institute for Environmental Economics and World Trade at Leibniz Universität Hannover. She studied environmental sciences as well as sustainability economics and management. As part of her work for the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU), she was involved in the preparation of the flagship reports “Our Common Digital Future” on digitalisation and sustainability and “Land Transition in the Anthropocene: From Competition to Integration” on the sustainable use of the scarce resource land. She also works with project data from the DFG-funded long-term project “Thailand-Vietnam Socio-Economic Panel” (TVSEP). Robyn Blake-Rath’s research focuses on resilience in agriculture in a sustainable context, the impact of digitalisation, and the influence of human decision-making processes.