In the UK, like the rest of the world, we are buying more and more electronics and electrical equipment. This is driving economic opportunities and improving the quality of our lives, but comes at a heavy cost to people and the environment.
We wanted to know what technology companies and waste businesses are doing to solve these problems and what more needs to be done, so we launched an inquiry into e-waste and the circular economy in March.
This is what we heard.
What's the problem?
Electrical and electronic equipment has become essential to modern life. It enables instant communication and higher standards of living for people all over the world.
The UK creates the second-highest amount of electronic waste (also known as e-waste) in the world. Where should the old phones, laptops, and toasters in cupboards and closets go once we’ve finished with them?
Most of us don't know what to do with our electronic waste, and a lot of it goes to landfill, incineration or is shipped out of the country and dumped elsewhere.
The UK is one of the world’s largest exporters of electronic waste. Some researchers think we send the equivalent of 40% of the electronic waste we collect overseas. This is illegal. In the countries that receive our electronic waste, it is often dumped, with toxic chemicals leaching into the environment and harming people.
Three major issues with e-waste
1. Our gadgets are lasting for less time and becoming harder to repair.
Some companies are even deliberately making it hard for us to repair their items. This means we are buying and using more than we need to be. In July, we surveyed people who spend time in repair cafes, asking them about the barriers they face trying to extend the life of electronics.
As part of our #EACewaste inquiry we asked volunteers at repair cafes around the UK to complete a survey to highlight the barriers they face trying to repair electronics and reduce #EWaste (thread) pic.twitter.com/4E8hL8U00i— Environmental Audit Committee (@CommonsEAC) July 16, 2020
We were told that Apple glues and solders parts together on their laptops, which makes repairing them very difficult. They also charge very high fees to repair their products.
This trend, which goes against a long history of engineering in the UK, needs to stop.
2. Rare and precious metals are being wasted when they don’t have to be.
Our electronics are filled with the same materials we need for use in:
- wind turbines
- solar panels
- car batteries
- healthcare technologies like artificial joints and pacemakers
- defence technologies like infrared and radar.
These valuable rare resources are already the subject of geopolitical struggles. Some are so rare that they are predicted to run out completely by the end of the century.
Instead of recycling our electronics so those metals can be used again, most of them get incinerated, sent to landfills, or shipped to other countries. Some recycling methods here in the UK shred and burn the electronics, losing these metals anyway.
3. Online marketplaces are not doing their part to reduce e-waste.
This isn't fair. Despite growing pressures on their businesses, shops on our high streets will have to start collecting e-waste from homes or providing a drop-off for recycling, but online retailers and marketplaces will not.
We heard from DixonsCarphone and AO.com about the success of their e-waste collection service - offered when they deliver new electronics to customers. Whilst companies like Amazon told us they are not set-up to do this, we think that all retailers and online marketplaces should take their share of responsibility for E-waste and offer this service.
Watch Matt Manning of Dixons CarPhone describe the positive effect of a collection service the company introduced in 2018:
New regulations come into force in 2021 that could unfairly solidify the competitive advantage of online retailers and marketplaces like Amazon.
What can be done?
Our key conclusions
1. Protect consumers. The current business model for electronics is reliant on continuous consumption, a throwaway culture and short-lived products. The Government should protect consumers by strengthening and lengthening product lifetime guarantees and ask producers to label products with how long they will last and how easy they are to repair. We should all have a right to repair the things we own.
2. The Government should invest, and help businesses invest, in the high quality recycling methods that already exist. It should stop investing only in low quality energy from waste. Rare and precious materials contained in electronics are vital to decarbonising our economy and protecting our countries and must be re-used and recycled without polluting or harming our health and environment.
3. Technology companies and online marketplaces must do their part. These companies, so often at the forefront of revolutionary ideas, should now take the lead in creating sustainable and environmentally-friendly business models that do not rely on exploitation of nature. Online marketplaces and retailers in particular should take responsibility for paying their fair share and preventing low quality, unsafe products being sold in the UK. Many retailers collect the electronic waste created when they deliver replacements to our homes. This has been a very successful way of increasing e-waste collections. Large online marketplaces like Amazon should do the same.
We want an electronics industry that inspires innovation, improves quality of life and contributes to the prosperity of the UK.
One where valuable technology has a long life that befits the cutting-edge design, manufacture and precious materials that electronics and electrical equipment contains.
This growing problem must be acknowledged and brought to an end, replaced by creating a truly circular economy for electronics.
The Government must now respond to our report.
Our report, 'Electronic Waste and the Circular Economy,' was published on 26 November 2020. The Government has two months to respond to our recommendations.
If you're interested in our work, you can find out more on the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee website. You can also follow us on Twitter.
The Environmental Audit Committee monitors the policies and programmes of government departments and non-departmental public bodies, ensuring they contribute to environmental protection and sustainable development. It also audits their performance against sustainable development and environmental protection targets.
Images and video by Gabriel Sainhas and Tyler Allicock