The UK is one of the world’s biggest spenders on consumer electronics. According to WRAP, British households and businesses buy around 1.4 million tonnes of electrical and electronic equipment each year. In financial terms, average spending is around £800 per household, and this continues to grow, despite economic uncertainties and slow wage growth. Looking just at consumer electronics, the market is reported to have growing by almost 10% per annum from 2010-2014, and was estimated to be around £4.4 billion in 2016.
On the opposite side of all that spending is an awful lot of waste. WRAP estimates that the amount of waste electronic and electrical equipment (WEEE) bought each year is more or less equalled by the amount people dispose of – despite the amazing amount of electrical junk that Brits seemingly keep in their homes.
For the environmentally conscious techy, this raises a number of interesting questions, regarding the battle against e-waste and the need to find ways to responsibly manage it on a personal level. How far is it possible to reduce WEEE, without resigning yourself to living in the Dark Ages? How much can consumers do, and how much can only be done by manufacturers? And if we have no further use for an electrical item, what’s the most environmentally responsible way to deal with it?
Growing in heaps and mounds
Thankfully, OECD nations have jointly agreed to ban exports of WEEE to countries that are less well equipped to deal with the material in an environmentally responsible way. While you may see stories of the environmental and health damage caused by rudimentary WEEE processing in China, India, or various African nations, any material that ends up there from the UK has done so illegally. And while there are problems, some of what is reported seems to be rather exaggerated. However, there are many factors that have made e-waste grow into more of a mountain than a molehill in recent years.
In sections of the market where innovation has been taking place at a rapid rate, it’s easy to understand why the rate at which people are buying new products has been rapid. Great strides in technology (e.g. faster processors, greater functionality, advances in operating systems) have made many new devices far more capable than their predecessors. Anyone using a mobile phone from a decade ago – or even a slightly outmoded iPhone – will realise that technology has moved on immeasurably.
At the same time, we have an increasing number of consumers who have been exposed to electronics more or less from the cradle, and who perhaps view technology as more of a necessity than a luxury. The desire for new tech is also fostered by ubiquitous, cheaper and more focused online advertising that can practically track your interests. And our gadgets themselves have made buying new gadgets easy, fast and safe, with instant online gratification only a click of the “buy” button away – to an extent that imperils the existence of physical stores for some types of product.
So long as functionality keeps progressing, it is likely that demand will continue unabated as older products become genuinely obsolete – Euromonitor’s regular report highlights that innovation is currently the main driver of retail growth in electronics. However, we see high levels of demand for products in fields where technology isn’t really moving on that fast – and that’s where the idea of “planned obsolescence” comes in.
In the words of Clifford Brooks Stevens, who popularised the term, “planned obsolescence instils in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than necessary.” Obsolescence can take the form of products that are not built to last, and at are uneconomic to repair when they break down. As gadgets become more miniaturised and complex, there are more ways in which they which they can go wrong, and it more cost involved in repairing them. The market seems to favour cheap and disposable over durable and repairable, and manufacturers’ practices seem unlikely to change unless consumers or policy makers demand that they do so. Public sector procurement has an interesting potential role to play here in influencing design priorities.
Even when the old fridge, TV or microwave still works just fine, a surprising number of people each year are willing to part with their money to buy a new, shiny product, which may do the job little or no better. Changing consumption habits is hard, but it may be more feasible to prevent unwanted items from becoming waste.
There are already plenty of avenues available. Higher value items may be worth selling on eBay, Preloved or Gumtree. While some charities are wary of taking electrical items, some will take them, at least at some of their shops. That enables unwanted items to have a second life, and raise money for a good cause. There are also many re-use organisations that can make sure that unwanted but functional items go to people who need them. Or you could give the item away on Freecycle.
If WEEE is beyond repair, most councils provide separate receptacles for it at civic amenity sites, and around 200 now offer kerbside collections, at least of smaller items. It is estimated that around 69% of UK WEEE arisings are currently reused or recovered as useful recyclable materials, although a share of this recycling is through mechanisms such as scrap metal collections or metal recovery from incinerators. While that isn’t bad, there’s scope for improvement – both in boosting the recovery rate, and in giving more electronic items longer lives. WRAP estimates that 23% of WEEE items source separated at council HWRCs could be made functional with minor repairs.
Fortunately, there are some signs that industry observers and some forward-thinking manufacturers are starting to appreciate the benefits of embracing the circular economy – both from a resource security and a corporate social responsibility perspective. When products have quite short lifecycles and rely on insecure resources, ideas like leasing schemes and improved repairability are starting to gain traction. Meanwhile retailers can step up by helping inform their customers about the importance of handling their unwanted electronics responsibly, as mytrendyphone.co.uk did by producing this consumer-facing infographic.
This trend is set to continue: The UK industrial strategy and the EU Circular Economy package are both pushing in the direction of greater resource efficiency, which will entail more fundamental changes in product lifecycles. Electronics manufacturers, retailers and consumers alike need to prepare for a future with far less waste.
Mary Biron-Tolentino is CSR Officer at My Trendy Phone. Like other Isonomia authors, Mary writes in a personal capacity.