What is e-waste, and how does it travel across borders?

In modern society, electronic devices have become an important, even essential, part of day-to-day life. It has become very difficult for us to work and relax without using electronic devices such as laptops, smartphones, television sets, and gaming consoles. Each year, the total amount of electronic equipment the world uses grows by about 2.5 million tons.1But humankind’s love of and almost insatiable demand for electronic devices also has a downside: the production of huge volumes of e-waste, old electronic products that are nearing or have reached the end of their useful life. 

The reliability of e-waste transportation across borders is one of the key challenges faced by transporters and recycling companies who are aiming to ensure circular and sustainable logistics chains. Read on to find out more about e-waste, e-waste recycling, and the challenges of transporting e-waste for transporters and government authorities.

What is e-waste?

E-waste is a popular, informal name for electronic products (both consumer and business electronics) nearing the end of their useful life. Computers, televisions, VCRs, stereos, copiers and fax machines are common electronic products that often fall into this category as they approach the end of their functional lifecycle. 

Currently, the global e-waste mountain amounts to approximately 44.7 metric tons. In 2019 alone, the world generated 53.6 million tons of e-waste. That’s about 7.3 kilograms per person and equivalent in weight to 350 cruise ships. The lion’s share of this dazzling amount of e-waste consists of small electronic equipment (mainly household appliances), followed by large equipment (fridges, machinery), temperature exchange equipment, screens, small IT products, and lamps.

The current practice of e-waste recycling

The majority of so-called e-waste is not yet part of a sustainable reprocessing cycle. Instead, it is filling up land dumps or is scavenged for rare metals under inhuman conditions, often involving the use of toxic chemicals and child labor. When irresponsibly discarded, electrical goods can pollute habitats and harm people and wildlife.

At present, only about 18 percent is being formally collected and recycled. Europe has the highest e-waste recycling rate, followed by Asia, the Americas, and Oceania. Africa has by far the lowest e-waste recycling rate. Without a reliable, strictly controlled system of e-waste management, the toxic substances contained in discarded electronics (mercury, flame retardants, chlorofluorocarbons) can cause serious environmental pollution and increase health risks. E-waste also has the potential to contribute to global warming. This is especially true for temperature exchange equipment (fridges, freezers, air conditioners, heat pumps), which release greenhouse gasses when they are dumped and start to break down.

The aforementioned information on the global e-waste situation seems to paint a pretty bleak picture. Luckily, there is also a silver lining. Many of the products that seem to be destined to end up in the global e-waste landfills can actually be reused, refurbished, or recycled. Thankfully, the world is slowly beginning to realize this. A growing number of countries either have a policy for managing e-waste or are putting regulatory frameworks in place to tackle the problem. We also see that a number of big tech companies, Apple, Google, and Samsung being prime examples, have recently set ambitious targets for recycling electronic devices.  


The challenges of transporting e-waste for transporters and government authorities

The reliability of e-waste transportation across borders is one of the key challenges faced by transporters and recycling companies who are aiming to ensure circular and sustainable logistics chains.

Transporting hazardous waste internationally is complicated as it has to comply with different rules and regulations. Not every country uses the same classifications when it comes to defining e-waste. Furthermore, countries often have different import and export restrictions. There are usually two parties involved in the transport of e-waste:

  • Companies that need to comply;
  • Government agencies that want to make sure everybody in their territories complies with their regulations.

The solution: systems for tracking and classifying hazardous waste

So, what is the key to properly dealing with e-waste and remaining compliant with regional and country-specific import, export and trade regulations? The solution is a system that can track and classify e-waste and has the ability to provide real-time information about the country-specific regulations regarding the import and export of discarded electronic equipment.

A good example of such technology is software that creates machine-readable representations and knowledge graphs of all the rules and regulations regarding the transportation, import, and export of e-waste. The algorithms should also support e-waste classification per country and check this data against all restrictions and regulations from authorized parties. 

The solution should also identify the best possible routes, as well as give all parties the certainty that the transboundary movement of e-waste is allowed or not. This allows companies to identify potential transport countries and the most reliable transportation options and routes.


Limiting and properly discarding e-waste is still a daunting challenge. The amount of electronic goods being thrown away is staggering, whilst the regulatory framework for transporting e-waste is complex. However, the right tracking, trade and transport compliance tools, along with better recycling practices, can lighten the e-waste burden on transporters, governmental organizations and the environment.

  1. https://globalewaste.org/news/surge-global-waste/ 

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