Recycling Electronic Waste

Recycling Electronic Waste

21 February 2019

News broke of a remarkable achievement in the world of recycled electronic waste. All medals at the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics in 2020 will be made discarded smartphones, digital cameras, handheld games and laptops.[1]

The organisers have already collected over 47,000 tons of devices, 19 months after the project was launched. The goal for bronze has already been achieved, while more than 90% of the gold and 85% of the silver has been collected.

The concept is not uncommon within the Olympic community and had been previously implemented at Rio 2016, where an estimated 30% of the silver and bronze medals came from recycled materials.[2]

This remarkable feat got PAL Hire wondering why the UK is inherently bad at recycling electronic waste.

Is the Problem due to Consumers or Retailers?

As a country, we generate approx. 1.5 megatons of e-waste.[3] To put this into context, India, which has a population 20 times the size of the UK, only produces 100,000 tons more e-waste.

Comments can be made on the UK’s consumer-driven electronic industry, as we want the latest in high-tech equipment, but some retailers are simply unwilling to recycle and reuse. The WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) Directive puts the duty of care on retailers when selling a new item as they must take in the equivalent old model and dispose of it accordingly.

However, more and more retailers are using Environcom as a contractor, which will ensure electronic waste is recycled under the WEEE Directive.

The unique nature of the initiative put in place for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics is not simply the recycling of electronic waste, but also from where the waste is sourced. All recycled goods used in the creating of the medals will be donated by the public. John Doe, Jane Blog, and Anne Other, just like you, I, and those around us.

Several organisations, such as Envirofone, allow the general public to sell their phones for cash to be recycled or reused in developing countries. According to Envirofone, there are an estimated 4 mobile phones per household in the UK not being used.

The organisation reuses c98% of the mobile phones it receives, many of which are refurbished and sent to developing countries where they play a major part in establishing communication networks. If a phone is beyond repair, then the company will send it to a recycling plant in the UK.

The Problem is Global

A report commissioned by the United Nations University revealed the amount of e-waste generated globally is increasing by two million tons per year. Less than 16% of all waste is being diverted away from landfill into recycling and reuse.

This has created a global “urban mine” worth more than £34bn which has been lost as potentially recyclable materials have been discarded.

In a world of finite materials, this lack of care is quite concerning, and action must be taken to ensure the world does not run out of crucial materials.

The report also provided a disturbing fact. The thirst for electronic appliances was at such an extent that the world was generating enough waste to fill 1.2 million 40-ton lorries each year. The lorries would be able to stretch from New York to Tokyo and back again.

Is Recycling the Answer?

A study completed by Wrap, the government-backed charity which encourages recycling, found that circa 45% of UK waste electrical goods are recycled. By 2020, this figure is expected to reach 85%, to meet targets set by the EU, which the UK will more than likely adhere to post-Brexit.

Could we expect an acceleration in innovation or is recycling the wrong answer when it comes to electronic waste?

One fact that might be lost in this interesting article detailing why recycling may not be the answer[4] is the following:

In 2016, Apple unveiled a robot capable of dismantling an iPhone in just 11 seconds. Over the course of a year, the robot would recycle 1.2 million units a year. In the same year, Apple sold 211 million units worldwide. A small drop in the ocean; a hollow gesture; being seen to care for the environment.

So, what do we do?

Whilst writing this article and through researching the subject matter, I saw a common theme: “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.”

Recycle always came last, as if it was a last resort. Maybe the way to tackle this global problem is not to follow the same course of action as the Olympic organisers, but instead using our electronics for as long as possible. Instead of recycling, we simply expand the lifespan of our current equipment.

Instead of buying the latest Apple MacBook or Samsung Phone, we keep and use our old models, which are more than likely less than a year old. Large companies, such as Apple, should introduce real innovation as opposed to what can be seen as hollow gestures when comparing numbers. Innovation is needed from all corners of the globe to help tackle the problem before it becomes unmanageable.

The first step in all of this would be to educate and spread knowledge. Only with knowledge can we move in the right direction.