Why upgrading is downgrading life on earth.

Whenever the latest smart phone is released, people queue around the corner hoping to be one of the lucky few who are the first to get the latest, greatest, electronic gadget. Most of the time their current phones are still in perfect working order, but that doesn’t matter, out with the old in with the new. Have the latest, be a trend setter.

Mobile phone service providers and manufacturers reinforce this way of thinking and have built their business on obsolescence because it sells more products and more contracts. Devices are purposely built to last 2 years or less so that people will be forced to upgrade. But it’s not just mobile phones, home appliances are the same. 50 years ago, when technology wasn’t nearly as advanced, things were built to last, with 10 and 20 year guarantees and sometimes even lifetime warranties. Now you’ll be lucky to get a 2 year warranty on a new washing machine. It simply doesn’t pay manufacturers to build something you’ll only buy once or twice in a lifetime.  Why do that when they can have you buying a new one every 2-5 years?

The other side

But while our lives are being made easier by modern appliances and devices and the electronics manufacturers are smiling all the way to the bank, landfills are piling up with electronic waste. Or more precisely, it is being shipped to developing countries where it is either burnt or recycled using very basic means to try extract and reuse some of the precious metals and other components.

Statistics show that in 2017 more than 44 million tonnes of e-waste was produced globally. There is also strong evidence of illegal e-waste shipments being made, primarily to Africa from the UK and Europe. Illegal because e-waste contains harmful heavy metals that can contaminate soil and water sources, affecting food supplies in local communities - which rely on subsistence farming. What about the impact of mining all the rare earth metals required?

The argument might be made that e-waste recycling provides a form of income in impoverished communities, but this is double edged sword if it’s polluting the environment with toxins that can cause greater harm. With global watchdog’s exposing what’s really going on, the UK may once again find itself in the embarrassing situation of having to answer how waste from council recycling centres is ending up in developing countries. Especially as there are many e-waste recycling facilities in the UK.

Is circular economy thinking too much of a reach?

I’m a strong supporter of the circular economy. It’s something that not only makes sense, but also that could be a catalyst for innovation and opportunity in the UK. And given how some say our economy is currently teetering, one would think that people would be getting excited about opportunities in e-waste recycling, especially as it’s an industry poised for further growth.

So why aren’t more people getting on board with it? Perhaps because it requires change, and it requires thinking. Are we just too entrenched in a throw-away society? While many councils have plastics, glass and paper recycling facilities, there are not as many that accept what is deemed as more hazardous waste such as lithium batteries and electronic devices.  Indeed there is a cost and risk to storing and processing these items, but there’s also an opportunity to not only create good business, but to also make a positive impact on the environment.

It is estimated the UK alone generates more than 1.5 million tonnes of e-waste each year. Most of that goes to landfill even though there are many e-waste components that could be extracted, refurbished and reused. Perhaps the questions we should be asking are not what are we going to do with it, but rather what would 1.5 million tonnes of resource material be worth if it could be used in industry and manufacturing? How many products could it create? How many jobs could it create? What impact could it make on the UK economy?