Hoarding old gadgets 'preventing circular economy shift' and 'spurring rare mineral shortages'

The fact that most UK households are hoarding old digital gadgets with no plans to recycle them is a key barrier to implementing circular economy principles for e-waste, the Royal Society of Chemistry has claimed.

The Royal Society of Chemistry's chief executive Robert Barker, pictured with some of the redundant tech gathered by staff at the organisation’s Cambridge HQ during an amnesty

The Royal Society of Chemistry's chief executive Robert Barker, pictured with some of the redundant tech gathered by staff at the organisation’s Cambridge HQ during an amnesty

In a survey of 2,353 UK adults, the organisation found that 96% were keeping more one or more small technology items, including laptops, mobile phones and MP3 players, stored at home. Of these people, less than one in five have plans to recycle these items, with two-thirds planning to hoard them “indefinitely”.

When asked why they don’t recycle old devices, more than one in three (37%) of those with unused devices at home said data and security fears made them uneasy, while almost a third (29%) also said they didn’t know where to go to recycle old tech.

These findings are of concern to the scientific body because the manufacture of tech gadgets usually involves the use of dozens of rare elements mined from finite natural sources, including zinc, indium and gallium. Of the 75 elements typically used to produce a smartphone, the Royal Society of Chemistry Claims, 11 are at risk of running out in the next 100 years, as consumers purchase more gadgets.

While researchers are exploring alternatives to these minerals – and methods of creating them in laboratories, thus mitigating the need for high-carbon extraction – the Royal Society of Chemistry claims that their commercialisation is still a way off and that more must be done by policymakers and business in the interim.

Specifically, the organisation is calling for new design standards which prioritise recyclability, coupled with more infrastructure, communications and education designed to encourage consumer recycling.

“Chemical solutions to these challenges may still be decades away, and in the meantime we are approaching the point of no return for some of these materials, whose special properties make them uniquely suited for use in the technology we rely on in healthcare, in doing business and in our homes,” the Royal Society of Chemistry’s chief executive Robert Parker said.

“As individuals, reuse and recycling are the best options available to us, but even if recycled it is still extremely difficult to recover some of these elements from unused devices. We need action now – from governments, manufacturers and retailers – to make reuse and recycling much easier, and we must enable a new generation of chemistry talent to help.”

Action to date

In a bid to minimise its contribution to the global e-waste mountain, the UK Government has earmarked more than £8m generated through compliance fees from the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE) for projects that increase the reuse and recycling of electronic items. The fund will be spread across the next three years, with £1m set aside for research projects, £3m to be invested in behaviour change projects and the remaining £4m to be spent on local projects that boost reuse and recycling.

Moreover, the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) is currently conducting a three-month inquiry into how existing UK infrastructure, economics and cultural norms can be changed to create a more circular economy for e-waste. The inquiry was launched after a landmark study into the impacts of Europe's e-waste crimes on human food chains in Africa found that toxic minerals from waste tech was heavily contaminating poultry in Ghana.

Nonetheless, research from the United Nations University (UNU) found that more than 44 million metric tonnes of electronic waste was generated globally in 2016, with just 20% documented as recycled.

Its analysis anticipates a 17% increase in e-waste by 2021, making it the fastest-growing domestic waste stream globally. Between 2014 and 2017, e-waste levels grew by 8%.

In an attempt to mitigate this trend, the UNU recently co-founded an open-source portal that visualises e-waste data and statistics globally, by region and by country. The portal covers more than 90% of countries globally, listing the amount of e-waste generated in total and per capita and discarded prior to any collection, reuse, treatment, or export; the amount of e-waste formally collected in total and per capita and regulated by environmental protection laws specifically designed for e-waste; and e-waste legislation.

Individual businesses are also playing their part, with the likes of Dixons Carphone, O2 and Tesco all offering recycling services for small devices. 

Sarah George



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