E-waste recycling rates are alarmingly low
Today, Thursday 14th October, marks International E-Waste Day, an event promoted by non-profit association WEEE Forum to raise awareness about the problem of electrical and electronic waste and encourage people to recycle their old or broken electronics.
Imagine living without a fridge, a washing machine or a hoover, and getting stuff done without a laptop. Just 200 years ago that’s how people lived, but today it’s unthinkable: electrical and electronic appliances have made our life easier and richer, and now we can’t do without them. Yet, as much as we love and depend on them, we don’t seem to be as good at maintaining or disposing of them appropriately.
According to recent estimates, one in seven appliances in European households are broken or never used because they are too old. When it comes to mobile phones, a French study estimates that 54 to 113 million phones are sleeping in drawers and other storage spaces in French homes: that’s at least one phone for every single French person.
The global amount of uncollected e-Waste has now reached 57 million tonnes, heavier than the Great Wall of China. Pascal Leroy, director general of the WEEE Forum, an organisation that coordinates efforts to manage the e-waste problem, said: “In Europe, 55% of all electrical waste is reported as officially collected and recycled: the rest is either still in people’s homes, amassed in landfill or has been illegally exported to other countries. The global figure for recycled e-waste is even more alarming: only about 17% is collected.” Electrical waste in landfill is a problem because it contains toxic substances such as mercury and brominated flame retardants (substances that inhibit flammability in electrical products) which can leak into the soil, as well as the chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) responsible for the depletion of the ozone layer.
An even more compelling reason to recycle e-waste is that it contains critical raw materials that can be reused, like gold, copper and palladium. This avoids the need to mine new material and reduces reliance on supply from hostile or unstable countries where these elements concentrate. Moreover, mining is often very damaging to the environment, especially in countries where regulations are weak..
So it is critical that consumers recycle their old or broken equipment. But are governments doing anything to make it easier for people to recycle? “Governments are promoting campaigns such as International E-Waste Day to raise awareness in the population. They are also incentivising producers to set up a dense network of shops and collection points where consumers can recycle their waste. Now there are also apps that consumers can use to find out where the closest collection point is”, says Leroy. In the UK, an example is the electronics chain Currys, which will accept a broken appliance whether you bought it from them or not.
“During the 2020 pandemic, surprisingly we have seen a reduction in the consumption of electronic equipment. But other research suggests that, as we buy more laptops, printers and other items to work from home, consumption will increase”, concluded Leroy. Therefore, it is more critical now than ever to ensure we keep current items working for as long as possible, repair them when the damage is small, and bring them to a collection point for recycling when we really feel they have given all they had to give.