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What is e-waste and what can we do about it?


If you have a few redundant or broken electronics languishing in drawers at home, you’re not alone. The UK is one of the largest producers of household e-waste in the world and we can all be part of the solution.

Prof Richard Herrington, Head of Earth Sciences at the Museum, shares some tips for how to dispose of unwanted electronics and tells us about an innovative urban mining project.

What is e-waste?

E-waste (electronic waste) includes anything with plugs, cords and electronic components. Common sources of e-waste include televisions, computers, mobile phones and any type of home appliance, from air conditioners to children’s toys.

Why is e-waste a problem?

The UK is currently one of the largest producers of household e-waste in the world. When broken or unwanted electronics are dumped in landfill, toxic substances like lead and mercury can leach into soil and water.

Electronics also contain valuable non-renewable resources including gold, silver, copper, platinum, aluminium and cobalt. This means when we dispose of them without recycling, we are throwing away precious materials.

Current e-waste recycling solutions are just exporting the problem

Recycling is a preferable option to sending valuable componentry to landfill, but it comes with its own ethical considerations.

Processes are slow and inefficient, and nations are exporting the challenge to countries where labour laws and safety don’t protect those doing the meticulous and dangerous work of processing e-waste for metal and mineral extraction.

‘Whole computers are sent to China, Africa or India, where entire villages including children just sort components,’ says Richard.

‘What we need is to be manufacturing products here and keeping a better handle on where materials are within particular products. We should be designing them so they are more readily recyclable – better labelling and construction would allow componentry to be more readily reused and precious minerals, rescued from landfill.’

How to recycle mobile phones, computers and other electronics

Trying to work out what to do with unwanted or broken electronics? Take these four steps to give them a new lease on life and keep as much as possible out of landfill.

  1. Postpone upgrading for as long as you can
    Think twice about getting your phone or other devices upgraded. Do you really need a new device to do your job or communicate effectively with others?
  2. Find opportunities for reuse
    If the item is still in good working order or requires only minor repairs, think about giving it to someone else. If friends or family don’t want it, there are a number of charities that will take them and get value from old items, especially mobile phones.
  3. Try returning the item to the manufacturer
    If the item is broken or unusable, a first port of call should be the manufacturer. Ask if they have a process for returning old electronics and their materials for credit. Most won’t take back goods at the end of their working life, but some will, and the only way market practice and accountability will change is if enough consumers advocate for it.
  4. Take them to a dedicated e-waste recycling facility
    If there really is no way to reuse or return the item, find a reliable local organisation who will recycle it.

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