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We must tackle e-waste head on to protect our environment

Credit: Liang Xu/Zuma Press/PA Images

4 min read

E-waste is the fastest growing waste stream globally. We must create better recycling models.

Every year, we throw away on average around 25kg per person of electronic goods that could otherwise have been reused or recycled. That is the equivalent weight to around 10 laptops, or over 25 kettles.a

Why on earth are we creating so much electronic waste? The nation of shopkeepers has bred a nation of keen consumers.

New advances in electronic gadgets transform our lives, increase productivity and open up entertainment choices. But predecessor versions get tossed aside when manufacturers release new models. With the accelerating pace of technological development, for some products this can happen every year. There is also some evidence of built-in obsolescence, feeding the upgrade frenzy. Just last week our European neighbours announced plans to put the onus on manufacturers to make electronic items ‘built to last’.

Over the next few months, coronavirus permitting, the Environmental Audit Committee will be considering how we can reduce unnecessary waste and create a circular economy for electronics in the UK.

We will be focusing on a number of areas, including the threat to the environment when electronics aren’t disposed of properly; whether consumers know what to do with their old electronics; and why the UK is falling short of its targets for e-waste recycling.

Since Blue Planet hit our screens we have seen a surge of interest in reusable products that cut single-use plastic waste.

But there is much less awareness of initiatives for electronics. We cannot ignore this problem – e-waste is the fastest growing waste stream globally. It contains many valuable materials – some of which are critical for high tech industry – much of which can be recovered and resold, if disposed of correctly.

At a time when we are facing increasing threat from climate change, wildlife extinction and new challenges to our national security, we need to put much more focus on resource efficiency.

The UK is routinely failing to meet Government targets to collect e-waste

E-waste can contain up to 60 different metals and chemicals, some of which can be hazardous to the environment, but also to human health. If disposed of incorrectly, the components can pollute water sources and enter food chains. We have seen examples of this when televisions are dumped and lead contaminates the surrounding soil.

But I want to highlight some of the encouraging moves amongst certain electronic sectors to change the business model. So we will be looking to learn from those companies improving recycling and reuse rates, and steering away from the old linear approach of ‘make, use and dispose’.

The mobile phone industry is getting better at offering recycling schemes, with some organisations offering cash for old handsets. Many other electronics manufacturers are behind the curve, leaving consumers unsure how to dispose of their devices and gadgets properly.

There are a handful of high-tech electronics recycling plants around the UK offering specific recycling for old TVs, flat screen monitors, kettles, laptops and other electronic items. Some of these centres extract valuable metals such as copper and gold that can then be sold on.

Despite these facilities, the UK is routinely failing to meet Government targets to collect e-waste: 494,976 tonnes of e-waste were collected in 2019, falling short of the target of 550,577 tonnes.

We want to get to the bottom of why this is. The committee last year received written evidence indicating a lack of consumer awareness, but the current annual targets of waste collection do not seem to be incentivising sufficient long-term investment in recycling for manufacturers.

The UK is leading the way in many areas of environmental standards. We have an opportunity – and obligation to future generations – to lead the way with e-waste. I hope our inquiry will be able to suggest ways to do so, as part of our contribution to help the UK reach net-zero by 2050.

Philip Dunne is Conservative MP for Ludlow and chair of the Environmental Audit Committee

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