By Catherine Greenacre
E-waste also referred to as Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) refers to discarded appliances that use electricity, ranging from fridges, washing machines and vacuum cleaners to keyboards, computers and smartphones. Yet, it represents a growing global issue with far-reaching implications and recent reports by the UN have indicated that it reached record levels of 53.6 million metric tonnes in 2019, an increase of 21% in the last 5 years.
When devices are thrown away, often little thought is given to where they end up and the repercussions for both the environment and human life. It is estimated that less than 40% of e-waste in the EU is recycled, meaning the majority ends up in landfill where toxic pollutants such as mercury seep into soil and water. Globally, this statistic is even less at 17.4%. This also signifies a waste of valuable, non-renewable and finite resources, indirectly increasing the need for further mining, land degradation and encouraging or exacerbating further resource crises. In fact, the UN estimates that in 2019 alone, non-recycled e-waste represented roughly US$57 billion of high-value recoverable materials.
The UK is one of the largest consumers of electronic tech and one of the greatest producers of e-waste per capita. According to Material Focus (a non-profit established to help the UK meet its electrical reuse and recycling targets), domestic e-waste in the UK represents 155,000 tonnes annually – almost 20 items per household. Commercial and industrial also signifies a growing problem with 145,000 tonnes also being thrown away annually.
Millions of tonnes of e-waste also continues to be dumped overseas, particularly to less developed nations in Africa or Asia. The UK is no exception to this trend as roughly 40% of UK e-waste is exported abroad, and much of this is done illegally. In fact, according to the environmental NGO Basel Action Network (BAN), the UK illegally exports the most e-wate to developing countries out of all other European countries. Indeed, non-functional e-waste is often falsely classified as reusable or refurbished, which can be exported legally, so that such activities are often wrongly perceived as legal.
Therefore, part of the problem is that even when we as consumers attempt to dispose of items ethically and environmentally, the reality can be far from it, as BAN’s e-trash transparency projects in the UK, Canada, Australia and the U.S. have shown. Most alarmingly, 40% of e-waste given to recycle groups in the U.S. was dubbed ‘scam recycling’, whereby equipment is exported overseas, where the majority of which is not responsibly recycled and environmentally harmful. This amount is over triple that of the other countries examined, a discrepancy which has been attributed to the U.S. not being Party to the Basel Convention or implementing effective e-waste legislation, showing just how important policy is in shaping the future of e-waste.
E-Waste's Far-Reaching Problems
E-waste also represents an issue with far-reaching consequences, not just for the environment, but for social equality and human health. There often exists a distinct lack of appropriate waste management and recycling infrastructural facilities within developing countries and therefore e-waste is predominantly managed by the informal recycling sector, of which child labour makes up a significant component. As such, methods of recycling and metal recovery often involve open burning and exposure to toxic substances such as lead, mercury and arsenic. This poses acute occupational health risks like cancers, burns, organ damage and neurological disorders, just to name a few. What’s more, these issues often extend to the wider local community and are in addition to the grave environmental implications such as contaminating ground water and releasing climate change-inducing greenhouse gases from burning practices. By exporting non-functional e-waste overseas to developing states we are directly contributing to such practices.
Manufacturer Mentality and Corporate Culture
One of the key drivers of e-waste stems from “planned obsolescence” by manufacturers and the ever-decreasing lifespan of electric and electronic equipment. For instance, Apple’s use of haptic features in the iOS 10 operating system that required a new generation of iPhone. Alternatively, the class-action settlement more recently against Apple, which alleged they had been deliberately slowing down older generation iPhones to increase further consumerism through ‘upgrades’ and generate enhanced revenue. Then, there is also the increased difficulty or outright blocking of third-party repairs. Yet, this phenomenon is not unique to Apple and is part of a wider corporate culture.
Is There Hope for the E-Waste Problem?
Progress has been made in the form of EU eco-design measures last year which have made a minimum repairability requirement for fridges, freezers and TVs, amongst some other items. However, these requirements do not include other central sources of e-waste including smartphones and laptops. Whilst there has been talk of further EU plansthat includes these devices, this law is something that will have to be agreed upon by EU member states. Therefore, it is important for us to use our collective voice in support of these measures and ensure governments prioritise such legislation. Additionally, in the case of the UK, your voice is especially important as Brexit means it is unclear whether the UK will continue to adhere to all EU standards.
Moreover, the “right to repair” movement has evolved as a reaction to this corporate culture. It aims for further national and EU-level regulations that foster more repairable and longer-lasting products. It also seeks to highlight the significant relationship this has in relation to, amongst other things, climate change, socio-economic inequality and sustainable development. You can show your support by donating and join the campaign as an organisation here.
Pushing for a More Circular Economy: How Businesses Can Solve the E-Waste Problem
Aside from the pressing moral responsibility, taking steps to promote a more circular economy are in corporate interests when viewed holistically. Amongst other things, they can enhance and enrich company image, particularly in an environment where consumer consciousness surrounding sustainability and one’s own environmental footprint is rising rapidly. Additionally, there are many associated economic incentives including tax deductions, for example.
When buying electrical and electronic equipment ensure you fully understand your company’s needs and choose the best option that fulfils them, rather than choosing what on the face of things appears to be the cheapest option. Consulting IT professionals and reviews is likely to mitigate cost in the long run, reduce e-waste and help your business run most efficiently.
Resell or Donate:
Once office electronics are no longer required, consider reselling or donating these items. This diverts waste away from landfill and can help limit demand for products which are energy intensive to manufacture. Moreover, donations of electronic equipment to charity can result in tax deductions and thus financial benefit. It is important to ensure however, that company data is wiped through specialised software or by contracting a specialist.
Refurbish & Repair
Repair equipment rather than disposing of it. Often this may only require some technological know-how, a system upgrade or minor changes to equipment such as adding extra memory or hard drives. It will also save your company from having to buy new equipment.
Offer Take-Back Schemes
If your business produces electrical or electronic equipment, ensure responsibility for disposal and management of them. Offer a take or buy-back scheme that collects and recycles used products that is both convenient and free for consumers.
Change Design & Manufacture Processes
Design products that are meant to last, easier to be repaired and not thrown away. As communicated by the right to repair campaign, products must be made reparable by design, spare parts and repair manuals should be made accessible and ultimately design practices must allow for and ultimately support disassembly.
How Individuals Can Help Solve The E-Waste Problem
The money you spend is ultimately a vote that represents your values. Avoid choosing digital devices that are made to be thrown away, research the product that best suits your needs, has longer lifespans and avoid simply choosing the cheapest option.
Reduce your consumption of electronic equipment by taking care of your devices by maintaining and repairing them as best you can. Where possible try to also choose products that are more durable and replacing equipment only where absolutely necessary.
Repair items where possible, see if there is a repair manual online such as on iFixit allowing you to fix items yourself. Alternatively, take your equipment to a repair shop and get a quote to see how much it will cost to mend.
If your e-waste cannot be repaired or donated, do not dump it in landfill. Check online and see where your local recycling centre is. If you cannot secure transport there check with your local authority as they may have a pickup service available to you.
Use and Amplify Your Voice
Write to your local MP asking them to raise the issue “scam recycling” publicly at the House of Commons. Alternatively, use social media to publicly ask what large manufacturers and businesses are doing to tackle e-waste. Insist on stricter standards of durability for manufacturers and for further measures that facilitate the recycling, repair and resale of electronic goods. Demand the right to repair be implemented in national legislation. Additionally, educate yourselves and others of the drastic implications of e-waste and encourage them to reduce, reuse and recycle.
How the E-Waste Problem Can Be Reduced
Ultimately, the solution to e-waste requires a collaboration of both local, corporate, and governmental action. Both consumers and manufacturers must alter their attitude surrounding electronics and aim for a circular approach rather than one that is linear. Ensuring e-waste (or any waste for that matter) is not sent to landfill must also be a primary objective to conserve resources.
Yet, it must be acknowledged that at the individual level, buying ethically and sustainably is often a privilege in itself for those which have the financial means to buy longer-lasting products and time to dedicate to researching them, for example. Thus, individuals that are not in a position to do so must not be vilified and those able must help pave the way and make sustainability more accessible for everyone.