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Jack Bains looks at the precious and toxic materials being sent to landfill

Did you know that UK residents produce an average of nearly 24kg of electronic waste per person each year?

This places us as the second worst offender for per capita e-waste in the world.

Globally, the amount of electronic waste we produce is rising three times faster than population growth, with 2019 setting a new record of 54 million tonnes being produced.

E-waste is rising three times faster than the world’s population.

Jack Bain Jack Bain Member of the Sustainability Team

Toxic and wasteful

There’s a reason we need to focus on this as the January 2020 article in the Financial Times highlighted. 

Altogether, we produce 50m tonnes of toxic electronic waste globally every year — with the UK being one of the worst offenders

This e-waste is also the fastest-growing element of domestic waste yet only around 20% of the precious and toxic materials within these products will be collected and recycled.

A lot of the heavy metals used in common e-waste, such as refrigerators, LCD screens, mobile phones, etc. can pollute water and soil and even enter the food chain.  These include lead, mercury and cadmium and, along with chemicals commonly found in plastics, such as flame retardants and CFCs they pose a serious threat to the environment.

Precious and wasteful

A similar article in the Guardian from July 2020 reported that around £8bn worth of precious metals such as gold and platinum are simply dumped every year in what the report calls “the growing mountain of electronic waste that is polluting the planet”.

Both the Guardian and the FT articles quote the 2019 UN’s Global E-waste Monitor report, which states that “e-waste” has increased 21% in the last five years and is rising three times faster than the world’s population.

With less than a fifth being recycled, not only are we literally throwing away precious and rare materials, we are increasing the toxicity and environmental and human health damage at the same time.

The UN report points to a lack of regulation and the relatively short lifespan of products that are also hard or impossible to repair.

Repair more, buy less

Thankfully there is movement on changing the situation with a report last week on the BBC website calling for all electronic goods to have a ‘repairability rating'.

The article reports opposition parties calling on the government to find ways of forcing the manufacturers of these products to add a score on electric devices showing how easy they are to repair.

This would counter what is often seen as a deliberate ploy by some electrical manufacturers to build in "planned obsolescence" which limits the lifetime of products so more can be sold.

Other European countries, such as France are looking at similar moves from next year, with clear labelling to encourage consumers to purchase more environmentally-friendlier products.

In conclusion

Electronic waste is notoriously difficult and expensive to recycle or dispose of in a way that doesn't damage the environment, so clearly more needs to be done.

In 2019, the EU adopted Right to Repair standards, which mean that from 2021 firms will have to make appliances longer-lasting and supply spare parts for machines for up to 10 years.

However, with Brexit on the way, where would that leave the UK in terms of e-waste regulation?

Well, the UK government has pledged to "match and even exceed EU eco-product regulations" in the post-Brexit era.

This is something that will factor into our own sustainability strategy here at Mitsubishi Electric in the UK and both the ‘product-end-of-life’ and ‘how this fits into a Circular Economy’ is actively being reviewed by our business to ensure that we deliver sustainable solutions, long into the future.

Jack Bain, member of the Sustainability Team