Call to Arms: The Battle against Electronic Waste
31 January 2023
If you have an old mobile, broken laptop or unused charger languishing in your drawer at home then you aren’t alone. The UK is one of the biggest global producers of electronic waste amongst an already bleak global picture. Only 17% of the world’s electronics are recycled annually. In writing and researching this blog, I was surprised by the scale of the problem and also by how much my personal habits are contributing. What’s the problem with this and what can we do to help?
What is electronic waste?
Electronic waste - or e-waste as its commonly known - is any waste that has plugs, cords or electrical components; globally this is the fastest growing waste stream. The most common items that become e-waste are redundant charging cables, mobile phones and laptops. According to a recent survey, a massive 68% of people across the UK are hanging on to an old charger and 52% keep an unused laptop. Whilst this is unnecessary clutter in our homes, the bigger problem is the valuable resources being squandered and what often happens when we decide to get rid of these electronics.
What’s the problem with e-waste?
The vast majority of electronic waste enters landfill with other household rubbish. This means that toxic substances such as lead (commonly used in computers, mobiles and keyboards) and mercury (LCD screens and monitors) can leach into soil and water sources. Here, the substances can reduce plant growth and even have harmful effects on human health at high concentrations.
Of equal importance is that making electronics uses valuable resources including precious metals. In fact, making a single smartphone takes 280kg of Earth’s resources! A lot of these resources are non-renewable including copper, gold, aluminium and cobalt. Mining for more of these resources rather than using those we have already extracted is not only wasteful but damaging to the environment. Extraction of these minerals often leads to land use change, air pollution, noise pollution and a loss of biodiversity through site activity.
The current UK attitude seems to be out of sight out of mind. A report in 2020 identified the UK as being the worst offender across Europe for the illegal exportation of e-waste exploiting a ‘repairability loophole’, which allows electronics to be shipped abroad for reuse. The waste is often shipped to developing countries such as Ghana, Nigeria and India where health and safety is often lax around the recycling of e-waste. Rather than being reused, e-waste is openly burnt and there are 18 million children estimated to be working on toxic digital waste grounds like these around the world.
People have stared recognising this wastefulness and are recovering resources in a process known as ‘urban mining’. Urban mining is reclaiming e-waste products from landfill to salvage their materials. For example, for every million mobile phones recycled, 75 pounds of gold can be extracted – enough to make more than 450 gold Rolex watches! 5,000 gold, silver and bronze medals in the Tokyo 2021 Olympics were made from recycled e-waste from devices donated by people across the whole of Japan.
How can I help?
Don’t upgrade unless needed
Throwaway consumerism is to blame for a large proportion of e-waste. Upgrades come out so regularly and people can feel pressure to buy the latest version of their device meaning the older version simply goes to waste. If your device is still working properly then hold off on the upgrade for a while, the old brick phone is coming back into fashion any day now…
If your device is still working, see if it can be given to a friend in need or charity shop. If there is some damage, repair centres are becoming increasingly popular. The Fixing Factory has recently opened near me in Camden where a group of volunteers repair broken technology and teach these skills to local community members so they can get involved. Find out more here
If there is no other option, rather than dumping old electronics with your usual household rubbish, find a centre that can recycle it. There are plenty of options available and you can see centres near to you at Recycle Now. Places for People is in the early stages of collaborating with a company called Sunscreen IT. Sunscreen IT collect old electrical equipment, recycle it, and put profits into their charity which supplies IT equipment to schools.
What’s the future for e-waste?
As it stands, this is a problem that is only going to get worse. When we think of waste, we are often aware of the problems with food and plastic waste (which are hugely important) whereas electronic waste is overlooked. However, this picture is slowly changing. As piles of e-waste continue to grow so does the ambition of the public, companies and volunteers to tackle the problem. Solutions exist to the mounting problem of e-waste; it just takes a little extra time and effort for us to get there.