E-waste, not earth-waste: Why we should stop mining for our electronics

   Chris Williams


How many electronic devices do you have in your home? From your phone and TV to your microwave and air fryer, every electronic device you own will contain metals that have been mined from ever-decreasing resources.

Take a good look at your smartphone, for example. The casing might be plastic, aluminium or carbon fibre, and a multiple-layer glass screen is covered with indium tin oxide Nickel is used for microphone vibrations, gallium in the semiconductors, magnesium for EMI shielding and lithium in the battery.

With people replacing technology at speed, there’s a phenomenal amount of electronic waste in the world. In 2021, Forbes reported that smartphone sales had reached 1.535 billion. Many of those will already have been replaced – that’s a lot of potentially useful materials sitting in a draw or even thrown away. And an awful lot of new materials used to build the latest models.

A BBC report in 2022 quoted a study estimating that the world’s mountain of discarded electronics weighed 57 million tonnes. Instead of mining the earth for new materials, we need to be mining our electronic waste to recover the precious – and in-demand – materials needed to satisfy our drive for tech.

What’s in our technology?

Gallium, Arsenic, Silver, Indium, Yttrium, Tantalum, these are just some of the key materials that are in high demand. As natural resources, these have a finite supply, and at some point, if we keep mining at current levels, they will run out.

In addition to natural resources running out, supply chains are vulnerable. For example, the war in Ukraine has put pressure on nickel supplies. This increases prices and volatility in supply, which in turn makes devices more expensive and harder to acquire.

Managing tech reuse and recycling

Of course, the ideal situation is to reuse material from old or unwanted technology to build new devices. But that’s easier said than done. Many people hold onto their old technology – mainly because they don’t want to throw it away, and they don’t know how best to deal with it.

That means there are millions of devices that could be usefully repurposed, hiding in drawers, boxes, lofts or garages. And it means there is an opportunity for forward-thinking waste and recycling companies to find ways to support the collection and recycling of this old tech.

What we absolutely don’t want is for tech to end up in landfill – something that still happens in the UK and around the world. E-waste can leach toxic chemicals into the soil and also takes potentially hundreds of years to break down because of the type and nature of materials used.

End-of-life commitments

What’s needed is a complete, usable and clear way to send your devices for reuse or recycling once you are finished with them. Slowly, some manufacturers are taking responsibility for the whole life cycle of the devices they create. This includes trading in your old device when you buy a new one. But if you’re doing this, you should make absolutely sure that the vendor is going to reuse or recycle your product – not just dump it.

There may also be an opportunity for dedicated tech recycling companies – you send your device to them and they take it apart, sort the various elements and manage reuse and recycling via secondary markets – which is where they make their money.

We need to get into the habit of actively pursuing a better end of life for our devices – and holding manufacturers and suppliers to account if they don’t offer this type of service.

But we also have a responsibility as consumers. Instead of ditching a perfectly good phone for the next model, why not just keep it until you absolutely have to change it? And then, why not buy a refurbished device rather than propping up the demand for brand-new devices?

Give your old device away – there are plenty of schemes that send devices to people who need them. And if your device is broken beyond repair, make sure it goes back into the system to provide materials for new devices.

Become part of the solution

Our demand for the next generation of technology is unlikely to go away. So we’ll be creating new devices for many years to come – or until the resources run out. So now is the time to invest in ways to support consumers and businesses to safely and sustainably reuse and recycle technology, creating a circular economy that benefits everyone involved.

To find out more, contact our team today or visit our showcase below.

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