Reduce, reuse, reboot: why electronic recycling must up its game

Lucy Siegle
Eighty percent of our electronic waste ends up in emerging and developing countries. Photograph: Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

Tech powers many things, including cognitive dissonance. A few years ago I was travelling through Agbogbloshie, the commercial district in Accra, known as a graveyard for electronic waste, a hotspot for digital dumping. I tutted and shook my head in sorrow as I surveyed the charred keyboards and plumes of toxic computer smoke wafting across the landscape. My Ghanaian colleague looked with some amusement at the tech spilling out of my handbag. My laptop, phone, iPad – where did I think they might end up?

Despite my relatively puritanical approach to upgrades (I can remember ALL my phones), there’s a good chance that those items ended up back there or somewhere similar. According to 2011 figures from the B&FT (Business and Financial Times, Ghana’s biggest business newspaper), the country took in 17,765 tonnes of UK e-waste that year, nearly 50% of all of the waste electronics that were dumped there. For the UK’s discarded electronic goods, Ghana is still likely to be a major destination. Others include China, India and Nigeria. Out of all the electronic waste we send for recycling, 80% ends up being shipped (some legally, and some not) to emerging and developing countries. China is tightening up. A recent change in the law reclassified circuit boards as “hazardous” waste, putting some Chinese e-waste reprocessors out of business. It was a digital version of the butterfly effect: causing more e-waste to be dumped on developing countries to be processed illegally.

This in turn causes well-known suffering and degradation. Workers who handle the innards of everyday technology, such as cadmium, lead, mercury, arsenic and flame retardants, lack basic safety equipment. Reprocessing increases the risk of land, air and water contamination. When some e-waste is burned at low temperatures, brominated flame retardants (BFRs) used in circuit boards and casings creates dangerous toxins.

By next year the amount of e-waste generated globally is projected to hit 50m tonnes, according to the United Nations University’s Global E-waste Monitor. This will include in excess of 3 million tonnes of small gadgets. That’s not just mobile phones, calculators and laptops – it’s also new stuff like fitbits, Christmas socks that play jingle bells and unmentionables such as vibrators (sorry, but if it’s got a battery, it’s e-waste). There will also be some 12 million tonnes of large equipment: washing machines, clothes dryers and, increasingly, solar panels.

The record will quickly be surpassed. E-waste is created by the digital revolution, driven by Moore’s law – the observation that microchips double in capacity roughly every two years – and other frenetic obsolescence, which some maintain manufacturers design into their products deliberately.

Tragically, we’re still waiting for a Moore’s law equivalent for e-waste recycling. To many of us, this issue will look like a box of old hair straighteners and phones that we would understandably like to recycle without adding to the injustices of digital dumping. But in truth, options for dealing with e-waste remain patchy and imperfect. Just as we tackle normal waste with the Reduce, Reuse, Recycle hierarchy, the same goes for electronic castoffs. How well you do depends on how tough you’re willing to be with yourself.

Recycling old smartphones is now relatively easy, although owners should resist the urge to upgrade unnecessarily. Photograph: Bet_Noire/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Start with a mobile phone

You’ll probably have noticed that recycling your mobile phone is comparatively easy. Not only is there a huge resale market for these in developing countries but mobile phones also produce gold, silver and copper. In the UK, mobile phone companies have paid into funding schemes such as Envirophone.

Make the retailer take it back

Waste electrical and electronic equipment (adding up to the unfortunate acronym WEEE) is covered in EU law by the WEEE directive (who knows what Brexit may bring), designed to stop people doing the worst thing they can do with electronic waste: chuck it into landfill. When retailers sell you a new item they have to, by law, take in the equivalent old model and dispose of it according to regulation. It therefore becomes their responsibility.

I know from experience (a new vacuum cleaner) that this can mean a lot of standing around in a high street store while the manager denies all knowledge of the WEEE directive, but do persist. If the retailer or manufacturer uses Environcom as a contractor, this is good news – the Grantham-based company recently won a prestigious Circular economy award for reprocessing WEEE.

Stockpile your tech until e-waste recycling catches up

This might sound like the hoarder’s way out, but change is a-coming. At the moment 45% of UK waste electrical goods are recycled, with 80% of it going overseas. By 2020, at least 85% will have to be recycled, if targets are stuck to post-Brexit, so we could reasonably expect an acceleration in innovation. Blockchain technology – already being deployed in reverse vending machines to recover single-use plastic bottles – could be used in recovering and reprocessing e-waste for example. As e-waste contains about 40 to 50 times more precious metals than ores from mining, currently thought to be worth more than €48bn (£43bn), it seems bizarre we’re not recovering this properly.

Shun an upgrade and buy thoughtfully

The fewer phones you have, the fewer you need to recycle. Easy. Taking a slow approach to tech and eking out the lifespan of key gadgets is key to cutting your contribution to e-waste. When you must replace, use Greenpeace’s Guide to Greener Electronics. Tech behemoths score badly for scaling down repairability. Also look for tech that avoids problematic resources in the first place or uses sustainable materials – House of Marley headphones, for instance, use FSC certified wood. The Eco-vert label denotes low-energy manufacture and avoidance of toxic materials and appears on some printers and computers. Fairphone.com is the ethical market leader – it not only uses conflict-free minerals but is a modular product designed to be repairable.

Become part of the repair economy

While manufacturers such as Apple are increasingly designing products in ways that make them difficult for users to fix, according to Greenpeace, true heroes are stepping up. Remade in Edinburgh represents civil society rather than tech and creator Sophie Unwin has turned a former bank branch into a re-use and repair superstore. This social enterprise is where you can go to learn how to fix your own tech and extend its lifespan. It’s a similar idea to the many repair cafes, sometimes associated with the Transition town network.

To some, this will seem nicely mindful but unlikely to make a significant difference. I disagree. I think repair on a high street level, from person to person, can be a significant intervention and actually mirrors some of the entrepreneurial behaviours we have seen in Ghana and other informal reprocessing economies. The way to make a dent in digital castoffs is to get stuck in.

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