E-waste out of control even though Brits sit on £16bn of unused tech

The amount of e-waste is forecast to keep growing (Credits: UNU/UNITAR SCYCLE – Yassyn Sidki)

How many unused gadgets do you have sitting around at home?

A few old phones, some disregarded headphones and perhaps a USB mouse or last generation video game console – all count towards the amount of potential electronic waste (e-waste) we’re generating.

Turns out that Britain as a whole is sitting on £16.5 billion worth of unused gadgetry, working out at £598 per household.

Research conducted by trade-in site musicMagpie found a UK adult owns 11 unused devices on average – including laptops, games consoles and mobile phones. But rather than sell the tech and pocket some cash, 32% keep them on hand ‘just in case’.

That’s all well and good, but a larger problem is emerging. Even though we’re holding on to tech – we’re still throwing *a lot* away.

An eye-watering 56.3 megatonnes of e-waste was produced in 2019, weighing more than all the adults in Europe, or as much as 350 cruise ships the size of the Queen Mary 2, enough to form a line more than 75 miles long.

A man looks for recyclable parts from electrical and electronic equipment at Quan Do village in Bac Ninh province, Vietnam (Reuters)

That’s according to a study of the problem published in the Global Waste Monitor 2020. The team behind the research also predict the amount to reach 74 million megatonnes – doubling in a 16-year period.

In particular, they point to the countries with developing markets, where an increasing number of household electronics like refrigerators, air conditioners, and lamps are now being bought.

According to their report, Asia generated the greatest volume of e-waste in 2019, some 24.9 megatonnes, followed by the Americas with 13.1 megatonnes and Europe with 12 megatonnes, while Africa and Oceania generated 2.9 and 0..7 respectively.

Electronic waste or e-waste is pictured in a junk shop in Makati City, Metro Manila, Philippines (Reuters)

More starkly, last year’s discarded e-waste averaged 7.3 kg for every man, woman and child on Earth.

Maria Neira, director of the Environment, Climate Change and Health Department of the World Health Organisation (WHO) said: ‘Informal and improper e-waste recycling is a major emerging hazard silently affecting our health and that of future generations.

‘One in four children are dying from avoidable environmental exposures. One in four children could be saved, if we take action to protect their health and ensure a safe environment.

‘WHO is pleased to join forces in this new Global E-waste Monitor to allow evidence, information about health impacts and joint solutions and policies to be made available to protect our future generations’ health.’

Electronic waste is often dumped in developing nations like Vietnam (Reuters)

While the problem is a global one, disposing of old and unused gadgets responsibly is one way Brits can help.

musicMagpie – like some other sites – aims to take your old phones, laptops (or whatever), refurbish them and sell them on to others. The site will allow you to post in old items for free and it’ll give you cash for them. You can select a range of different devices and the site will tell you how much you can get for each one. Crucially, if it can’t refurbish them it aims to recycle them responsibly rather than just carting them off to landfill.

‘It’s clear from our research that something has to change in the way that we purchase and recycle tech,’ said Liam Howley from musicMagpie.

‘There is another option that is smarter for the consumer and smarter for the environment. This circular economy model sees old tech being sold back for cash, then refurbished to a high standard and sold back on for the next person to use.

‘And this in-turn, reduces the mountains of e-waste going into landfills across the world, but also the landfills sitting in people’s drawers and cupboards.’

Brits are accumulating more and more e-waste even as we keep hold of gadgets ‘just in case’ (Unu/Unitar Scycle/Yassyn Sidki)

Part of the reason e-waste is so bad is because technology (e.g. monitor screens) can contain toxic substances like mercury – which will potentially cause damage to people living in the vicinity of the dumping grounds.

Furthermore, valuable substances like gold, silver, copper, platinum (conservatively valued at £46 billion annually) found inside electronics are also being dumped rather than collected and treated for reuse.

Since 2014, the number of countries that have adopted a national e-waste policy, legislation or regulation in place has increased from 61 to 78 but this still leaves more than half of countries lacking.

The Global E-waste Monitor 2020 is a joint project of the Global E-waste Statistics Partnership (GESP), formed by UN University (UNU), the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), and the International Solid Waste Association (ISWA), in close collaboration with the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).


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