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Stemming the rising tide of e-waste

discarded elements from computer boards

The electronics industry thrives on the thrill of the new. The latest phone, tablet or laptop with the smallest, brightest or smartest applications tempts us to upgrade our equipment on a rolling basis. As each new gadget launches, the plans for its replacement are already underway. But what happens to the unwanted earlier editions of these shiny new tech toys? Electronic waste from throwaway gadgets is a huge international issue.

The World Economic Forum reports that we produce around 50 million tonnes of e-waste annually around the globe. To put that in perspective, that’s the same tonnage in e-waste as all the commercial aircraft ever produced. The UK is in the top ten of e-waste producers, along with the USA, France and much of Scandinavia.

So why has this waste mountain built up and what can we do about it?

The right to repair

Repairability, or the lack of it, is one of the key issues. Much of our tech isn’t easily mended. Beyond fixing a phone screen, it’s tricky to take our gadgets apart and repair them – in fact you’re actively discouraged from doing this by the tech giants, which adds to the throwaway culture that demands the latest gadget.

EU legislators are currently looking at the issue of repairability, specifically around key componenets in fridges, lighting and electronic displays potentially requiring manufacturers to ensure these elements are easily repaired with standard tools. Legislation isn’t popular with manufacturers but perhaps it would help to extend the focus to take in electronic gadgets.

The need to recycle

electronic waste being recycled - gloved hands hold discarded phone

The second part of the story is about increasing rates of recycling. WRAP, the sustainability not-for-profit organisation that focuses on recycling and creating a circular economy, reports that the electronics industry could prevent 1 million tonnes of waste and save 14 million tonnes of CO2 emissions by using resources more effectively.

Globally we recycle only around 20% of our electronic waste, which presents a huge challenge and a massive missed opportunity, given the intrinsic mineral value of many of the component parts of our phones, TVs and laptops. Many of our gadgets contain valuable deposits of gold, silver and other metals for a start. In fact, European manufacturing firms spend about 40% of their costs on buying raw materials, which is unsustainable in the long term.

We’re unlikley to stop people from buying electronic gadgets any time soon. But it would help if the technology companies shifted the way new products are constructed, to value the ability to recycle their components alongside processor speed and energy efficiency. Some businesses are already operating take-back and trade-in models, where people can return used goods, which is a step in the right direction, provided the old devices are then effectively recycled.

Being conscious consumers

It’s important for recycling initiatives to come from a trusted source, as research shows people are anxious about handing over gadgets which could contain personal data. As with all waste initiatives, it’s important to manage them effectively as small, light, glued-together devices can be difficult (and even dangerous) to recycle, as the materials that make up electronic waste can contain toxic components, including mercury, lead, flame retardants, barium, and lithium.

Recycle Now has more information about how to recycle electronic waste in your area. 

The final part of the equation is to become more aware of our own buying habits. It would help if there was a general shift towards making products that will last longer than a year or two, rather than leaving us all chasing the latest upgrade. However, that might be too much to ask. Instead, we can actively choose to try and maintain our tech, and use it for longer, which would reduce the demand on resources from manufacturers and chip away at that e-waste mountain.

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