The plastic waste problem gets plenty of attention, and for good reason: If we continue mismanaging this material as usual, there could be 7.7 gigatons of the stuff cluttering landfills, waterways and oceans, or being incinerated by 2040.

Just as stunning: Plastic isn’t the fastest growing waste stream the world needs to deal with.

According to research released over the past 18 months by the International Telecommunications Union, that honor actually goes to various forms of electronics — ranging from mobile phones to appliances such as vacuum cleaners (the biggest part of the e-waste stream today) to refrigerators, air conditioners and other heat-exchange systems (the fastest growing part of the e-waste universe). That trend is the motivation for a “significant strategic investment” this week — the amount isn’t being disclosed — by investment firm Closed Loop Partners in ERI, the largest IT recycling and refurbishment company in the United States.

More details in a moment. First, consider the problem. “Each year, approximately 50 million tonnes of electronic and electrical waste (e-waste) are produced, equivalent in weight to all commercial aircraft ever built; only 20 percent is formally recycled,” write the authors of a report published by the World Economic Forum in 2019. “If nothing is done, the amount of waste will more than double by 2050, to 120 million tonnes annually.”

Two other data points to mull, courtesy of the Global E-waste Monitor: Researchers figure just 17.4 percent of electronics are collected, refurbished or recycled worldwide. (For comparison, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported that the recycling rate for PET bottles and jars was close to 30 percent in 2019.) The value of this e-waste — including the materials that could be harvested and put to another use or the revenue that could be generated by finding them another home — is estimated at $57 billion, more than the GDP of some countries.

These realizations — along with revelations about the fragility of the electronics supply chain exposed during the COVID-19 pandemic and worries over future shortages of material such as glass, copper, gold and aluminum — are motivating a flurry of activity this year related to the circular economy for electronics.

There is a huge market in being able to divert these materials from landfills, and in being able to extend the asset life of products or the individual components within.
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