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Blog Post 6 September 2021

Reduce, repair, recycle: how to stem the rising tide of e-waste

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.

We produced a record 53.6 million tonnes of e-waste globally in 2019, an increase of 21% in just five years. To put that in perspective, that’s more tonnage in e-waste than all the commercial aircraft ever produced. The UK is in the top ten of e-waste producers per capita, along with the US, 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.

Since 2019, the European Union’s Ecodesign Package has generated measures to improve energy efficiency, repairability and recyclability of household products, including fridges, washing machines, lighting and electronic displays. The measures ensure the availability of spare parts for a longer period of time after purchase, which should encourage repairability.

Now that the UK has left the EU, there is an opportunity to go even further. And there is public appetite for these measures. An impressive 91% of participants in the Citizen’s Climate Assembly were in favour of greater resource efficiency and standards, as well as greater repairability and sharing of products.

The need to recycle

The second part of the story is about increasing rates of recycling. Research from Material Focus, the not-for-profit organisation that promotes electronics recycling, found that in the UK alone, 2.8 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions could be saved through recycling old electrical items – the equivalent to taking 1.3 million cars off the road.

Globally, we recycle only around 20% of our electronic waste, which presents both a huge challenge and a considerable 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. In fact, European manufacturing firms spend about 40% of their costs on buying raw materials, which is unsustainable in the long term.

We’re unlikely 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 that 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 couple of years, 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 technology, and use it for longer, which would reduce the demand on resources from manufacturers and chip away at that e-waste mountain.

Last updated: 1 September 2021