This post is by Scott Butler, executive director of Material Focus.
In the UK, we throw away over 350,000 tonnes of consumer and business electricals every year. From fridges to fryers, sat navs to servers, TVs to toothbrushes, vapes to kitchen appliances, the electricals we use are made from some of the most valuable, precious and critical raw materials on earth, including steel, aluminium, copper, gold, silver and lithium. The UN says waste electricals are the fastest growing waste stream in the world. And, if we take a quick look around us and see all the tech we, our children, our friends and everybody else is using, that isn’t surprising.
Today is International E-waste Day. Earlier this week, we and Green Alliance came together at an event in London to carve out a couple of hours to ask whether the UK is taking electrical waste seriously enough.
The time we had would never have been enough to talk about all the challenges and opportunities and answer the question we posed. But we wanted to restart and open up the conversation around what we should be doing with our old electricals and tech. Because the situation is getting serious.
Plastics, paper, food, tins, glass and food are now regularly collected at the doorstep or kerbside from households. But small electricals – like toasters, kettles, cables and hairdryers – rarely are. Making it easier for all of us to do the right thing by getting our old electricals fixed, donated or recycled is what we focus on. And kerbside collections would make it easier, as well as having simpler and more straightforward ways for people to take electricals back to the places they bought them from.
Currys is paying people to return old electricals
Dean Kramer, services director at Currys, who spoke on our panel this week, shared the impact of their recent Cash for Trash initiative which offers customers a financial incentive to recycle electricals. He explained how the scheme has tripled the amount of used items collected in their stores. Although retailer take back like this is beginning to appear in the UK, it needs to be broadened to more shops to make it simpler and accessible for everyone.
REPIC, a producer compliance scheme, commissioned research that shows that 20.7 million unused and working tech electricals, worth a possible £5.63 billion, are hoarded in UK homes. These could instead be donated to those in need. Helen Milner, chief executive of the Good Things Foundation, also on our panel, said that embedded in ewaste was a huge opportunity to refurbish and repurpose devices to help those in need, both young and old. She emphasised that this isn’t just an environmental issue, it’s a social issue too, saying that, if we are looking at how we improve the circularity of ewaste, “let’s put disadvantaged people at the end of the circular economy, making sure that unwanted electricals are used for good and particularly for those digitally-excluded.” An estimated 10 million people in the UK are currently digitally excluded which is a barrier to accessing jobs, medical care and education. Our research has shown that 527 million electrical items, including tech and household appliances, are hoarded in UK homes, many of which could be donated to those who really need them. Better collaboration between producers, retailers and consumer groups could redirect the stream of ewaste to transform millions of lives.
1.3 million vapes are thrown away each week
Another area of fast growing concern is single use vape waste. Our research has revealed that a staggering 1.3 million vapes are being thrown away every week. Covered in plastic, which is an issue itself, the lithium contained inside the batteries of all these small devices, together, is equivalent to the lithium needed for 1,200 electric vehicle batteries. And that is every week. It’s extraordinary that we are consuming and throwing away, in such quantity, a precious material so vital to our growing green economy. This is aside from the major environmental and human rights concerns around lithium raw material extraction which should be a prime motivator to keep what we already have in the system through reuse, recycling and remanufacturing.
Libby Peake, Green Alliance’s head of resources, highlighted that, as a society, the UK is particularly poor at buying cheap electrical products with short lifespans, contributing to an enormous tide of electrical waste that makes the UK the second highest contributor to electrical waste per head of population after Norway. She noted, perhaps surprisingly, that the UK is even higher than the US for this type of waste. She suggested that one obvious solution would be to do more to make sure our products last longer, for example through mandatory extended warranties, updatable software and making cost effective repair easy.
Changing this situation requires a new perspective on ewaste. We say that recycling should be the baseline minimum of what happens to discarded electrical items. They should be used as long as possible before being broken down for their components which should then be reused or recycled. We can’t afford to keep losing these valuable critical raw materials. And people want to do the right thing. In our high street and shopping centre conversations with people, we know they really hate this waste, but they also feel powerless to solve it – where can they take things? What do they do about their data and security? – which explains why drawers and cupboards are filling up in homes across the country with valuable, useful materials. We are working to help them free up the space.
For more information about Material Focus please visit www.recycleyourelectricals.org.uk. Green Alliance advocates a whole system approach to problems such as ewaste and ending single use of any product, wherever possible, see more at www.green-alliance.org.uk/theme/resources/