e-waste – what is it? and what can we do about it?

Apr 21, 2021

The UK is the second largest producer of e-waste per person in the world. But what exactly is ewaste and why is it bad?

what is e-waste?

E-waste is electronic waste – electrical equipment that’s no longer wanted. It can contain dangerous chemicals or rare materials that make it too dangerous for landfill. We’re getting through these products at a rapid rate, making e-waste the world’s fastest growing domestic waste stream (UN’s Global E-waste Monitor 2020).

common e-waste items

Some examples of e-waste are computers, laptops, tablets and smartphones. As well as home appliances like air conditioners, microwaves, heaters, fans, printers and fridges. Definitions of e-waste are always changing as more tech is made available.

why is e-waste a problem?

E-waste is bad for people and the planet. Because electronic waste disposal needs to be done properly to minimise the negative environmental and human impacts it can be an expensive process. For this reason ewaste is often exported to less economically developed nations where informal processing of e-waste leads to terrible consequences for people and to environmental pollution. There’s also a lot of illegal movement of e-waste around the world.

a problem for people:

Processes like taking goods apart, wet chemical processing, and burning are used and result in direct exposure to harmful chemicals. Long-term exposure to these chemicals can damage the nervous system and kidneys, and children are most at risk.

a problem for the planet:

When broken or unwanted electronics are dumped in landfill, toxic substances can get into the soil and water. Electronics also contain valuable resources like gold, silver, copper, platinum, aluminium and cobalt – when we dispose of them without recycling, we are throwing away precious materials.

‘I think any type of built-in obsolescence that creates waste is really very bad. Electronics contain precious natural resources like precious metals and minerals that we really shouldn’t be thinking of as disposable.’ (Green Alliance Report 2020)

mobile phones and e-waste

Smartphones are a huge contributor to global e-waste. Manufacturing a phone is the most CO2e heavy part of its existence – and yet there are still over 70 million unused devices stored in attics and drawers across the UK (Ethical Consumer, 2019). This image shows the impact of producing mobile phones for the UK in 2019 alone:

Three phone screens showing the CO2 emissions, water usage and amount of ore mined to produce phones for the UK market in 2019. Highlighting the importance of keeping a device as long as possible and preventing e-waste.

Source: Green Alliance 2020

6 easy ways to reduce e-waste

1. keep your device as long as possible

When you’re thinking about getting a new phone or tablet ask yourself – do I really need this? For every additional year you keep your device, you can avoid the environmental cost of creating a new one. If you keep your phone for five years instead of two or three, the carbon emissions and the impact of water usage per year are cut by 50% or more.

Graphs showing the water footprint and carbon footprint of mobile phones. These footprints decrease every year.

Source: Green Alliance 2020

Keeping your phone for longer also preserves the precious metals used to make it like gold, silver, platinum, iron and copper and raw materials like cobalt.

2. reuse or rehome your electrical goods

If the device still works or only needs small repairs think about giving it to a friend, family member or to charity. Or if you want to make some money then sell it on Ebay, Gumtree or Depop. Buying second hand is a great way to be more environmentally conscious!

3. repair or return

If the item is broken, get in touch with the manufacturer. Can you return old handsets or devices to them – and get a discount off your next purchase? If not why not? Put some pressure on them – customer suggestions help companies change for the better!

You might also be able to repair the device yourself – check out iFixit and Youtube for loads of free tutorials.

4. repurpose

If your old phone has a camera Greenpeace suggest turning it into a baby monitor or security camera!

5. recycle

If there really is no way to reuse or return your device then there are processes for e-waste recycling. If it’s a phone, it contains precious materials so it’s important that it’s recycled rather than binned! Oxfam recycles old devices for free. You can sell your old phone through fonebank and donate the money to Oxfam. Fairphone also has a recycling scheme – if you send a phone that can be switched on you can get money off a Fairphone 3.

6. vote with your wallet

When buying your next bit of tech, the cheapest deal might not be the best for you or the planet. Try to buy from companies that source their materials sustainably and have a clear plan for products when they’re broken or need replacing. We love Fairphone, Reboxed and Raylo. Want to learn more about how to buy a sustainable phone? Click here to read our blog about it

In a recent report Green Alliance made the case that criteria for electronic goods should include durability, repairability, upgradeability and component reuse, as well as recycled and critical raw material content. And we agree!