Is this the new waste race to the bottom?

We normally think of anything ‘fast’ connoting ‘good’. Efficient, clean, the best in industry. But when attributed to the shelf life of items containing raw materials and precious metals, ‘fast’ is leading us down an unsustainable track at an alarming rate. 

The current situation

As a sector comparison, the fast fashion industry has come under fire from the environmental movement, with demands to make a huge shift on waste. 

With around 60% of the clothes globally being made of plastics such as polyester, acrylic and nylon, and the sector contributing up to 8% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, recycling, reclaiming and reducing demand have become necessities. 

Despite 30% of fast fashion items bought in 2023 still being thrown into landfill the same year, buying items with a sustainable fashion certification and buying second hand (think Depop, Vinted, eBay) is, thankfully, on the rise. 

But when looking at e-waste — waste from electronic components — it’s not the same story. 

In recent years, there’s been a marked increase in quick, cheap electrical items such as earphones, fairy lights, charging cables, USB sticks and vapes — otherwise known as ‘Fast Tech’. 

The short lifespan and availability of these products have contributed to 16 items of tech being bought every second in the UK in 2023. Not only this, on purchasing, 47% of Brits see these items as disposable and do not have the intention to keep them long term, with many businesses also factoring in planned obsolescence to maintain product purchasing. 

Metals from electronic items, such as gold, copper and silver, can be recycled, but despite this, the UK continues to produce the second largest amount of e-waste per person per year in the world. 

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Why does this matter?

Based on a study by not-for-profit campaign organisation Material Focus, it was found that the average UK adult buys nine fast tech items each year and throws away eight. Every item bought contains a composition of precious metals that we are heavily reliant on in our race to a net-zero society. 

As all of these precious metals are required for the production of electric vehicles, wind turbines, solar panels and medical devices too, we must be much more stringent with their handling. 

Each of these items not only represents lost materials at the end of their lifecycle but also the labour and energy-intensive mining process that is then needed to source raw materials for creating new technology. 

Currently, over 23 million people are impacted by leached toxic chemicals in their waterways and floodplains as a result of metal mining; if we don’t start a complete recycling process, this number will get worse. 

Current waste management

Considering the impacts of e-waste, one would be hopeful to have global systems in place to tackle the issue. Indeed, if we are fully able to recycle all metals from electronics, so why are the numbers so bad?

Primarily, global understanding of the dangers of fast tech is lagging. In 2019, only 17.4% of global e-waste was recycled formally. The rest either sent to landfill or informally processed, such as being recycled improperly, scavenged, dumped in water bodies, burned or manually disassembled.  

When sent to and informally processed in low-income parts of the world, children and women local to the sites are exposed to toxic substances, impacting the brains, lungs and pregnancies of those residents.

This process further encourages scavenging for parts and increased mining by such communities for financial purposes; such work in these environments is now considered one of the most dangerous forms of child labour in the world. 

What can be done better in the future?

Reduce Demand

In our constantly updating modern world, in which we all crave the latest tech and have a work and personal phone and laptop, our first collective step must be to reduce consumption. 

We can reduce demand for new materials by first refurbishing them. Working technology left unused can either be sold on sites such as BackMarket or donated prior to being thrown away.

With over 80% of schoolchildren in the UK’s poorest schools without the technology to study at home, closing the loop on e-waste with refurbishments is a natural and necessary first step. 

Consumer education 

Consumption can also be reduced by proper recycling. In 2023, 60% of Brits reported that they recycle their electrical items, an increase from 52% in 2021.

As the remaining 40% is around 27 million people, there is a clear need for widespread education that any of the average 30 electrical items lying unused in their houses that have a plug, battery or cable can all be recycled. 

A great place to start is at your nearest recycling centre, which you can find here. Simply enter your postcode and the metal or electrical item you want to donate, recycle or repair, and find where you can do this.

With an increase of 67% in unused electrical items lying in each UK home from 2020 to 2023, knowing how to manage your waste has never been more important. 

Governmental regulation 

With education, refurbishing and recycling streams all currently lacking, calls for governmental mandates are the natural final step. 

The positive news is, not only do current regulations include the producer compliance scheme, in which producers of technology must comply with waste management systems, and distributor obligations, which include steps such as free collection in store and providing customers with information and advice, but there are also future plans for increasing the opportunity to recycle for households.

By 2026, we can expect curbside pickup of e-waste and an increase in collection points in stores. 

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