How many old electronic items do you have lying around the house, stuffed into drawers or hidden away in boxes? What about that antiquated Nokia, or the ancient laptop in your closet? Do you own a box of miscellaneous cables that no longer fit anything?
If so, you’re not alone.
“I’ve kept things of sentimental value like my very first iPod, which I bought in 2005, but I’ve just thrown away things like broken radios,” says Liz Piggott, a grade school teacher who lives in London. “The environmental impact of dumped electrical waste wasn’t something I knew much about.”
Liz and her husband Simon and their three sons are an environmentally conscious family—but electrical items somehow never factored into their way of thinking.
“I didn’t really know it was a thing, and I wouldn’t have known where to take them,” Piggott says of the old devices around her house. “Our 8-year-old son empties our recycling bin for pocket money. You can usually find him in the kitchen policing what his younger brothers put in the recycling bin! Yet we didn’t really think to do the same with our old electricals.”
That was until Piggott came across the Facebook page Recycle Your Electricals, which encourages people to unearth their old appliances and take action. “Reading the case studies got me to have a look for old electricals just lying about at home,” she says. “I honestly didn’t think I’d be as bad as other people until we began looking. I soon realised that I was just the same.”
The platform is run by U.K. non-profit group Material Focus, which has discovered some shocking facts about our electrical habits. British homes, the NGO says, contain enough disused cables to circle the planet five times, while Britons have 31 million old laptops that aren’t in use. In total, Brits buy 1.65 million tonnes of electrical devices every year. They have some 527 million old devices cluttering up their homes, and each year 500,000 tonnes of waste electricals are thrown away, hoarded, stolen or illegally exported.
On the other hand, Material Focus says, the U.K. could save £370 million ($463 million) if all the devices that are hoarded or thrown away were recycled. And if people took the time to sell their unwanted devices, each household could make around $776.
But Britain is just one small slice of a global crisis. According to Globalwaste.org, formed by the United Nations University and other bodies, a record 53.6 million metric tonnes of electronic waste was produced last year—the same as 350 cruise ships the size of the QE2—and they forecast that figure will rise to 74 million metric tonnes by 2030. Right now, less than 18% of that waste is recycled.
That’s a crisis, because e-waste damages the environment in a staggering number of ways. Toxic materials from dumped e-waste, such as lead, zinc, nickel and chromium, can get into the soil and water supply, causing lasting harm to people, animals and plants. And the smoke produced by the burning of e-waste leads directly to lung and heart diseases. As for climate change, WorldLoop has estimated that for every 1 metric tonne of e-waste recycled, 1.44 tonnes of CO2 emissions can be avoided.
Sam Kumar, also based in London and founder of spice business Simple Honest, has been recycling his old tech for 10 years—but even this veteran IT user wasn’t sure where all his old appliances should go.
“By the time our son was two, our house was overflowing with toys,” he says. “We had a ton of radio controlled toys, electronic games—even a robot dinosaur that he grew out of using. Most of these items were given away to friends and family, some are sold on eBay or go to a charity shop. But can you believe that no one wanted the robot dinosaur, or the tablet computers?”
So those items sat gathering dust. But it turns out even the most unlikely objects can be recycled if you know where to look, and after learning about Material Focus’s recycling locator, Kumar found stores that would take the remainder of his family’s electrical hoard. “I was genuinely surprised by the places that will recycle them,” he says. “We are definitely more proactive when it comes to recycling and reusing electricals now.”
That outcome, the founders of the campaign say, was their key motivation.
“Our research proved that too many small electricals, particularly cables, chargers and electric toothbrushes, are going into household bins and are being lost forever,” says Scott Butler, Material Focus’s executive director. “Within any electrical there’s a set of resources, metals and plastics that can be reused and repurposed. What we’re trying to do is get the recycling of small electricals into people’s minds as much as they would consider recycling cans, bottles and paper.”
Butler says Britain’s local authorities, retailers and waste management companies have been receptive to the campaign and the need to make it easier for people to recycle their devices. “We’ve built this plan with all the stakeholders in the industry. We need their support, their expertise and input. We don’t have anyone pushing back and saying ‘why are you bothering communicating recycling these electricals,’ because it’s a no-brainer: those precious metals and materials are being lost, and everybody knows that’s a wasted potential.”
In addition to the precious materials buried with our e-waste, says Dr Alison Stowell, an associate director at the Pentland Centre for Sustainability in Business at Lancaster University, the campaign is also vital from an environmental perspective.
“These devices contain chemicals and hazardous substances, and without the right equipment and training for repairing or dismantling them, you’re exposing people to the ingestion of chemicals,” she says. “And if it goes into the household bins, for example if people can’t be bothered to take their batteries to battery recycling, that leaches out in landfill.”
Awareness campaigns like Recycling Your Electricals, she says, are helping to give people solutions to the e-waste they’ve accumulated. “I think the new platform that they’ve created is a really great way of encouraging people to see where they can take things back.”
Stowell, who worked at IBM before leaving in order to focus on the problem of electronic waste, talks about her experience of visiting massive e-waste sites in places such as Agbogbloshie, in Ghana’s capital of Accra, where hundreds of thousands of tonnes of devices and appliances from Europe and the U.S. are dumped every year. There, young people sift through the waste, setting huge fires that belch out toxic smoke in order to retrieve the precious metals—copper, aluminium, gold and platinum—hidden within. The work is unpleasant and dangerous, causing untold health impacts among the local community.
Yet even in this bleak location, she says, there is a strong sense of the value of the waste.
“Yes, it was dirty and polluting, but it was a hive of entrepreneurial activity” she says. “If you’ve seen a recycling plant in the UK, it’s a bit like that. They extract materials; there’s a hierarchy of skills; there’s somebody in charge. They have a big repair sector too. Yet despite their incredible skill sets, they’re paid appallingly.”
But there are signs that some countries are recognizing their responsibility for the environmental and social harms of e-waste in Accra. In 2017, the German government announced it would put some $22.8 million into an e-waste center to support the local community. Stowell reports that the facilities, which include a health center, football pitch and a recycling club, have helped reinvigorate the area. Now, the UN has put out a call for more countries to get on board with such collaborations.
The Ghanaian experience, Stowell says, should lead people to ask themselves more questions about the products they buy and ultimately throw away. “Where do our products actually end up?” she says. “We’ve got we’ve got global marketplaces: we can buy things from all over the world, so we can resell things all over the world. To try and track and trace each item, whether it’s a washing machine or a hairdryer, is pretty hard to do. But it has a footprint.”
Stowell observes that as a result of the coronavirus lockdown, consumption in many Western countries has become an increasingly individualized act, with an explosion in online shopping. For this reason, she says, “the connection with how and what we consume and how we dispose has become even more important, especially when trying to capture or recapture resources.”
At the same time, right now might be a good time to do something about the waste in our homes. Material Focus says at least 60% of British families have done at least a spot of spring cleaning during the coronavirus lockdown, revealing even more of what the campaign refers to as “hidden treasures.” And some families are taking that mission to heart.
“As a family, we are now going to go to embark on a much needed decluttering of the loft and collect electrical items to be recycled,” says Liz Piggott. She says she’ll even be introducing those principles to the classroom.
“I am going to raise more awareness of recycling, repairing, reusing or selling old electricals and set a tech hunt as a summer holiday activity for my class,” she says. “Just think how many small electricals might be hoarded in the households of a class of 30 children—let alone in a school. That’s a lot!”
“People are recognizing we can all make a big difference on this one,” agrees Scott Butler. “If we just make a slight tweak to our own behaviour, cumulatively that could have a huge impact.”