WFH trend triggers spike in sales of new IT equipment, causing e-waste pile-up

The amount of unrecycled e-waste produced in the UK has grown substantially in recent months due to the imposition of lockdown restrictions and the purchase of new IT equipment for home working, research has shown.

According to the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC), nearly half of the people who moved to a home working setup bought new IT equipment to accommodate their needs.

The RSC also singled out fitness trackers, which boomed in popularity in 2020 as people sought ways to stay healthy during lockdowns. The RSC said that many of them contain precious elements such as gold, yttrium and indium, but are not being recycled at any significant rate.

According to figures from Currys PC World, 11 per cent of people simply threw their old tech in the bin, with only 13 per cent choosing to recycle it properly.

Professor Tom Welton, RSC president, said: “Clearly, the coronavirus pandemic caused a rapid change to our work and lifestyle patterns, but a significant unintended consequence we are now facing is a rapid increase to the UK’s already growing e-waste crisis. That nearly as many people are binning their old tech as recycling it is a huge concern.

“We increasingly think about the sustainability of other items around the home, such as plastics and cardboard packaging. If we’re to have sustainable technology, we need to start thinking in the same way about our old gadgets, or we risk running out of the elements we need to produce these items while continuing to exacerbate the environmental damage caused by the consumer tech industry.”

Globally, e-waste rose by up to 21 per cent in the five years leading up to 2020, but just 17.4 per cent of 2019’s e-waste was recycled, according to a report last year. A further study in December found that the UK produces the second largest amount of e-waste per person in Europe.

In a bid to cut down on UK e-waste, the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) has said tech giants should be banned from intentionally shortening the lifespan of devices.

“We know chemists are working on the tricky problem of how to separate more critical raw materials from electronic waste for recycling purposes, but we need local recycling infrastructure that enables the waste to be collected first,” Welton said.

“While we welcome the changes coming in to force at the beginning of January to ensure that retailers operate take-back schemes – an issue highlighted in the Environmental Audit Committee’s report to Government – it’s only possible to extract some of the more common raw materials on a large scale at the end of life.

Many precious metals are never recovered.”

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