Mobile phone hoarding: e-waste not good news for the environment

What happened to your previous mobile phone after you upgraded or replaced it? Did it go in a drawer? A box in the garage, perhaps?

Today marks International E Waste Day, with this year’s slogan, “Recycle it all, no matter how small!”, specifically targeting small devices with a high recycling value that are often hoarded for years before they become waste.

Stackedphones ondacaracola photography. Getty
Smartphones discarded this year stacked one on top of another would reach an eight of the distance to the Moon. Credit: ondacaracola photography/Getty Images

It’s a timely reminder, as results from surveys conducted across Europe suggest that the roughly 5.3 billion mobiles and smartphones dropping out of use this year would reach a height of around 50,000 km if stacked flat and on top of each other.

That’s well-and-truly over the average orbiting height of the International Space Station and about an eighth of the distance to the moon.

“In 2022 alone, small EEE (Electrical and Electronic Equipment) items such as cell phones, electric toothbrushes, toasters and cameras produced worldwide will weigh an estimated total of 24.5 million tonnes – four times the weight of the Great Pyramid of Giza”, says Magdalena Charytanowicz of the WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) Forum, responsible for organising International E Waste Day. “And these small items make up a significant proportion of the 8% of all e-waste thrown into trash bins and eventually landfilled or incinerated.”

With their valuable components of gold, copper, silver, palladium and other materials, mobile phones ranked fourth amongst small Electrical and Electronic Equipment (EEE) hoarded or unrecoverably discarded – that is put in draws, cupboards or garages – rather than repaired or recycled – or sent to landfill or for incineration.

Read more: Old mobile lying around? You know what to do…

The surveys ran for four months from June 2022 and covered 8,775 households across Portugal, Netherlands, Italy, Romani, Slovenia and the UK and asked participants about common items such as phones, tablets, laptops, electric tools, hair dryers, toasters and other appliances. The top five hoarded small EEE products were (in order): small electronics and accessories (e.g., headphones, remotes), small equipment (e.g., clocks, irons), small IT equipment (e.g., hard drives, routers, keyboards, mice), mobile and smartphones, small food preparation appliances (e.g., toasters, grills).

Italy hoarded the highest number of small EEE products, while Lebanon hoarded the least.

You might recognise some of the reasons given, which included potential future use, plans to sell or give away, sentimental value, future value, use in a secondary residence or contains sensitive data. Others were also unsure how to dispose of the item or felt there was no incentive to recycle it, and some argued that they’d forgotten, didn’t have time or that the item didn’t take up very much space.

Electronic waste dumped in a forest
Some e-waste is destined for unrecoverable landfill (this one is illegal). Credit: Carlos Ciudad Photos

This is a shame because such items, despite being small, pack a big punch in recyclability.

“We focussed this year on small e-waste items because it is very easy for them to accumulate unused and unnoticed in households, or to be tossed into the ordinary garbage bin”, says Pascal Leroy, Director General of the WEEE Forum, who have organised International E Waste Day. “People tend not to realise that all these seemingly insignificant items have a lot of value, and together at a global level represent massive volumes.”

“These devices offer many important resources that can be used in the production of new electronic devices or other equipment, such as wind turbines, electric car batteries or solar panels – all crucial for the green, digital transition to low-carbon societies,” says Charytanowicz.

What can be done about e-waste?

At the governmental level, there are a number of initiatives including legislation that are coming into effect or being tightened up in order to address this increasing problem.

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Copper (this is a mine in Cobar, NSW, Australia) is used in electronic devices. Credit: aron007/Getty Images

“The continuing growth in the production, consumption and disposal of electronic devices has huge environmental and climate impacts,” says Virginijus Sinkevičius, European Commissioner for the Environment, Oceans and Fisheries. “The European Commission is addressing those with proposals and measures throughout the whole product life-cycle, starting from design until collection and proper treatment when electronics become waste.”

“Moreover, preventing waste and recovering important raw materials from e-waste is crucial to avoid putting more strain on the world’s resources. Only by establishing a circular economy for electronics, the EU will continue to lead in the efforts to urgently address the fast-growing problem of e-waste.”

Read more: A circular economy and why we need one

There is also a role for more education and communication.

Launched today by UNITAR, the UN Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR), is the first self-paced e-waste online training course open to anyone. A UNITAR certificate is available upon graduation of the roughly 1.5-hour course which aims to use scientific findings in a practical way for international training and capacity building,” says Nikhil Seth, UNITAR’s Executive Director.

E-waste does not belong in the bin
Your smartphone doesn’t belong in a bin when you’re finished with it. Credit: Rapeepong Puttakumwong/Getty Images

Finally, The WEEE Forum has been actively involved in collecting, de-polluting, recycling or preparing for re-use more than 30 million tonnes of WEEE and has also run communication campaigns for almost twenty years.

“Providing collection boxes in supermarkets, pick up of small broken appliances upon delivery of new ones and offering PO Boxes to return small e-waste are just some of the initiatives introduced to encourage the return of these items,” says WEEE’s Leroy.

At the personal level, all you have to do is quite your hoarding habits and recycle, instead!

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