World at risk of running out of materials for consumer electronics
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Scientists have called on global markets to urgently increase e-waste recycling in order to address the large environmental impact of mining the Earth for metals to make new gadgets.
A new campaign run by the Royal Society Of Chemistry (RSC) hopes to draw attention to the unsustainable practice of continuing to mine for the precious materials used in many consumer technology products. One study has estimated that the world’s mountain of discarded electronics, for 2021 alone, weighed 57 million tonnes - more than the entire Great Wall of China.
The RSC warned that some key elements needed to build electronics are now simply running out.
It pointed out that geopolitical unrest, including the war in Ukraine, has caused huge spikes in the price of materials such as nickel, a key element in electric vehicle batteries. In addition, the price of lithium, another important component in battery technology, has increased by almost 500 per cent between 2021 and 2022. This volatility in the market for elements is now causing “chaos in supply chains”.
Professor Tom Welton, president of the RSC, said: “Our tech consumption habits remain highly unsustainable and have left us at risk of exhausting the raw elements we need.
“It is essential that governments and businesses urgently do more to develop a circular economy which can tackle the world’s growing e-waste crisis and alleviate the strain on supply chains.”
The Society also underlined new research which points towards a growing demand from consumers for more sustainable technology. In an online survey of 10,000 people across 10 countries, 60 per cent said they would be more likely to switch to a rival of their preferred tech brand if they knew the product was made in a sustainable way.
Moreover, the study also suggested that people did not know how to deal with their own e-waste. Many respondents said they worried about the environmental effect of unused devices they have in their homes, but did not know what to do with them or were concerned about the security of recycling schemes. Addressing this “unwitting stockpiling” of precious metals, in the forms of old electronics could be the key to meeting the demand for raw materials in the electronics market.
Less than 20 per cent of e-waste is collected and recycled, a number that is growing by about two million tonnes every year. In some areas of Latin America, as much as 97 per cent of electronic waste is "improperly managed", according to a recent UN report.
“Manufacturers and retailers need to take more responsibility,” said Elizabeth Ratcliffe, news and media executive at the RSC, who called for more ‘take-back’ schemes where people can return their electronics to a retailer and be assured they will be recycled securely.
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