Our world is very much a digital place. From state-of-the-art smartphones to shiny ultralight laptops, there’s no denying that electronic products are now a modern necessity, rather than a rare luxury.
As you know, as more electronic products are bought, more e-waste is created.
According to the UN, e-waste is the fastest growing commercial and domestic waste stream. In the UK, we buy and throw away more electronic products than most of Europe. In 2019, e-waste produced in the UK amounted to 23.9kg per person – second only to Norway.
Even with a world in crisis, the consumer electronic market experienced a growth in high-income countries, with the sales of gaming equipment, laptops and smartphones all growing. This trend is set to continue, especially with the work from home movement continuing.
But what happens when these everyday electronic products reach the end of their life? How can you recycle your e-waste and get rid of them properly?
Here’s a breakdown of how to properly dispose of your electronic goods, plus some insights on the importance of recycling e-waste for a greener home lifestyle!
But first, what do we mean by e-waste?
The term ‘e-waste’ stands for electronic waste. It refers to any item with electronic components, plugs and cords.
Once your phone, laptop or camera have reached the end of their life, whether they broke down or simply started lagging out of the blue, these discarded appliances become e-waste.
But the term not only refers to electronic goods that have been thrown away after years of use — it also includes all the unsold products you see in shops and the products that tend to become ‘obsolete’ in only a couple of years.
With plenty of unsold goods in stores and people changing their smartphone every other year, it’s not surprising that e-waste has become a problem. It’s become so much of an issue that e-waste is now synonymous with a global environmental issue, rather than a simple descriptive term.
E-waste is one of the most dangerous types of consumer waste plaguing our planet today. From televisions to computers, all electronic goods will leach toxic chemicals from their metal components, including lead, mercury and chromium.
Why is it important to recycle e-waste?
Consumer electronics account for a whopping 76% of sales in the media market. This number includes not only phones and computers but also e-readers, game consoles, television sets, speakers, Bluetooth earphones, digital cameras, and smart home devices.
With technology advancing all the time and things like cryptocurrencies growing in prominence, the amount of electronics and digital products being made is only heading in one direction. This means that e-waste is only going to increase too.
Currently only 20% of global e-waste is recycled properly. So, we need to find a much better way to deal with it. But why? Why is it important to recycle e-waste?
Chemical leaching is arguably the biggest concern involving e-waste.
If e-waste isn’t recycled properly and left to break down in landfills, the toxic substances used to manufacture these electronic products can harm the environment.
But there’s a lot more to the importance of recycling e-waste. Some of the key points include:
It helps preserve precious natural resources
E-waste also contains hefty deposits of precious metals, including gold.
Failing to recycle unused electronic goods can contribute to the escalating global mining crisis. Our Earth is continued to be pillaged for more and more resources, while the metals we already have in our unwanted electronics are discarded without regard.
It’s one of the fastest-growing waste streams
On top of that, e-waste constitutes one of the biggest sources of solid waste in the world. It’s one of the growing waste stream that concerns the UN the most.
This is due to the short life cycle of items like smartphones and laptops, alongside the rapid rate at which high and medium-income countries have come to see these products as essential.
It contains recyclable materials
The importance of recycling e-waste also comes down to its components.
Virtually all electronic items contain recyclable materials like plastic, glass, copper, aluminium, and silicone – there’s a reason the tech region in California is known as Silicon Valley! Not disposing of these recyclable materials properly will only create more waste!
All in all, not recycling e-waste means dumping toxic materials into our planet’s soil and polluting the environment through solid waste in landfills and incineration.
How should e-waste be recycled in an ideal world?
But while the consequences of not recycling e-waste are incredibly serious, figures show that only 25% of all electronic items in the US are actually recycled. Much of the rest are shipped overseas to be incinerated or mined by the world’s poorest communities.
In an ideal world, e-waste recycling would be much more efficient and efficient across the world. Currently, the process of e-waste recycling seems to be largely ineffective.
In fact, not only is the majority of e-waste sent to recycling plants then shipped abroad to be incinerated or mined, but the process of recovering the component materials is also hazardous to the environment.
In some parts of the world, for example, the gold found in electronic products is mined by mixing nitric and hydrochloric acid before dumping the rest in local landfills. This has serious negative implications to waterway pollution and landfill waste.
Eco-positive e-waste recycling would require a complete overhaul of the recycling process, recovering all recyclable materials in more costly local processing plants.
Going a step further, ideal e-waste management would mean reshaping the consumer electronics industry as we know it today. This would see a reduction in the number of electronic products we buy and a slow down in production to get rid of the ‘obsolete technology’ trend. This might be a hard sell to the tech giants.
How to recycle e-waste in the UK
As I’m sure you’re aware of, we don’t live in an ideal world just yet.
With this in mind, eco-conscious consumers have to make do with the recycling resources and infrastructure available today.
So, how can you properly recycle e-waste in the UK?
The best course of action will usually be to head over to your local Household Waste Recycling Centre to get rid of unusable electronic items featuring the crossed-out wheelie bin.
Keep in mind that before you do anything else, however, you should take away the battery from your electronic gadgets and format all your personal information to safeguard your privacy.
After that, you can also get in touch with a specialist recycling centre to get familiar with their e-waste policy. This is because some WEEE recyclers (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) will be able to collect recyclable electronics like phones and computers, and also dispose and recycle your batteries for you.
A handful of councils will also offer kerbside pickup for small electronic items, so make sure to contact them to find out what can be picked up!
How to reduce e waste?
Recycling aside, the key mantra when it comes to solving the e-waste crisis is to reduce, reuse and recover.
Before you head over to your recycling centre, it’s always best to try and sell your electronics to someone else or donate end-of-life items that are still usable and in good nick.
When it comes to reducing e-waste, it’s a matter of asking yourself a few questions and having a think about sustainable living.
Ask yourself, do you really need to upgrade your phone? Do you really need a new smartwatch or bluetooth earphones? Can that lamp be given to someone else or find a new place in your home?
And when the Christmas season comes around, why not give the brand-new smartphone a pass and opt for greener presents that won’t be obsolete in a couple of years?
Ben is the Creator and Editor of Tiny Eco Home Life. I write and publish information about more sustainable, environmentally friendly living in and around the home.
Alongside this website, I love spending time in the natural world, living a simple life and spending time with my young family (Murphy the dog!) I round up my thoughts and recent blogs on the Eco Life Newsletter.