Projected decrease in sales-related e-waste in 2020: 4.9 million tonnes or ~ 6.4%; Pandemic widened the digital divide between high, middle and low income countries

In the first three quarters of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a 30% decrease in electronic and electrical device sales in low- and middle-income countries, but only a 5% decrease in high-income countries, what highlights and intensifies the digital divide between north and south, according to a new UN report.

Globally, sales of heavy electronics such as refrigerators, washing machines and ovens fell the most – 6-8% – while small IT and telecommunications equipment fell by only 1.4%. Within the latter category, sales of laptops, cell phones and gaming machines increased in high-income countries and on a global basis, but declined in low and middle-income countries.

The new report from UN e-waste researchers predicts a total decline of 4.9 million tonnes (Mt) in future sales-related e-waste in 2020, about 6.4% less than a “business-as-usual” scenario.

“The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on E-Waste in the First Three Quarters of 2020”, published by the Sustainable Cycles Program (SCYCLE) of the UN University of Bonn and UNITAR, the United Nations Institute for Education and Research, which has been operating since has recently been represented in Bonn.

The results on a global level run counter to early expectations, says Kees Balde, a UNU Senior Program Officer who wrote the report together with UNU SCYCLE and UNITAR colleague Rüdiger Kühr.

Home offices and schooling, online hangouts and shopping, movie streaming, and other activities augmented by COVID-19 lockdowns led many experts to predict a significant increase in electrical and electronic equipment consumption, as well as an increase in e-waste disposal as people went house cleaning and cleaning Shopping to replace near-broken electronic devices.

Globally, however, all major categories of electronic and electrical devices – screens and monitors, large devices, temperature exchangers, small devices and lamps – declined by 6-8%.

In terms of weight, consumption in the large appliances category was the strongest with a minus of 1.7 million t, followed by small appliances and lamps.

The impact was greatest in the first and second quarters of 2020. Consumption rebounded in the third quarter in high-income countries but not in low- and middle-income countries.

“The so-called digital divide is increasing,” says Dr. Kühr. “The ability to adapt to digitization and make a living or just own and benefit from electronics is declining in some parts of the world. COVID-19 has also revealed a digital divide in high income countries where many poor are left behind. “

One small silver lining is reducing e-waste flows, albeit likely temporarily, in regions where e-waste mismanagement is causing major environmental and health damage.

The report urges nations to use this respite to improve the way we manage e-waste.

Dr. Balde; adds that COVID-19 has exacerbated global inequality in other ways, leaving half a billion people underemployed or unemployed, with women twice as bad as men.

And workers in low-income countries suffer the most, losing 23% of their working hours and causing social disasters as people go into debt, skip meals and keep their children away from school.

By region: Consumption of electronic and electrical devices, first three quarters of 2020

North Africa and West Asia

In four countries with complete data sets for analysis (Armenia, Israel, Egypt and Azerbaijan), an upward trend in consumption with small fluctuations was observed from 2018 to 2019. All three quarters of 2020 showed a decrease compared to the previous quarters and to the same quarters a year earlier.

Africa southern of the Sahara

In three with complete data sets for analysis (South Africa, Mauritius and Zambia), a fluctuating but increasing consumption trend occurred from 2018 to 2019. All three quarters of 2020 showed a decline, especially the second quarter when consumption was about 40% lower. The third quarter of 2020 showed an increase compared to the previous quarter, but below the level before COVID-19.

East and Southeast Asia

Five countries and Hong Kong had complete data sets for analysis (China, Hong Kong SAR, Japan, Maldives, India and Pakistan) showing a slightly fluctuating but increasing consumption trend from 2018 to the third quarter of 2019. From the fourth quarter of 2019 to the first two quarters of 2020, consumption decreased, while the third quarter of 2020 saw an increase.

Central Asia

Only one country, Kyrgyzstan, had complete data sets for analysis and showed a fluctuating but increasing consumption trend in 2018 and 2019, then a decline in the first three quarters of 2020. The third quarter of 2020 was higher than the second quarter, but not at the same level the time before COVID-19.

Europe and North America

These regions had the best data coverage and the analysis included 22 EU-27 countries, Switzerland, Serbia, Norway, Canada, TFYR Macedonia, the United Kingdom, the United States, Belarus, and Iceland. The data showed a slightly fluctuating but upward trend in consumption in 2018 and 2019, then a decline in the first two quarters of 2020. Consumption rose in the third quarter of 2020 – higher than in the second quarter and even higher than in the third quarter of 2019. In the first three quarters combined, however, consumption did not reach the pre-COVID-19 level.

Australia and New Zealand

Consumption fluctuated in 2018 and 2019, with peaks in the fourth quarters and a slight decrease from 2018 to 2019 and declines in the first two quarters of 2020 compared to previous years. The third quarter of 2020 was remarkably higher than the second quarter. Overall, the increase in the third quarter is greater than the decrease compared to the “business-as-usual” scenario, so that the consumption values ​​for the first three quarters of 2020 are back to those of 2018.

Latin America and the Caribbean

The study included data from four countries, Belize, El Salvador, Mexico, Antigua and Barbuda, which showed that consumption fluctuated from 2018 to 2019 and then declined in the first two quarters of 2020 compared to previous years. Consumption in the third quarter of 2020 was higher than in the second, but did not reach pre-COVID-19 levels.

The impact of the pandemic on e-waste was estimated using monthly trade statistics from a representative sample of all e-waste categories from January 2018 to October 2020 in 50 countries. The results were extrapolated to all electronic products and compared to a “business as usual” scenario based on the monthly data for 2018 and 2019 and adjusted for seasonal fluctuations.


The SCYCLE program, currently jointly hosted by UNU and UNITAR, will continue to research the effects of COVID-19 on e-waste and dedicate a special chapter to this challenge in the next Global E-Waste Monitor with an expected publication date of late 2022.

United Nations University

United Nations University (UNU) is a global think tank and postgraduate teaching organization headquartered in Tokyo and hosted by Japan. The Sustainable Cycles (SCYCLE) is a program of the UNU Vice Rectorate in Europe based in Bonn. Activities focus on developing sustainable production, consumption and disposal patterns for electrical and electronic equipment and other ubiquitous goods. UNU-ViE SCYCLE is a leader in the global quantification of e-waste product flows, with more detailed analyzes of generated / incurred e-waste in individual EU member states such as the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Italy, Romania and the Czech Republic. https: // and https: //www.scycle.the information


The United Nations Institute for Education and Research (UNITAR) provides individuals, organizations and institutions with innovative learning solutions to improve global decision-making and support country-level action to create a better future.

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