The dark side of ‘fast tech’ convenience

Amid a landscape seemingly marked by advancements in waste management, recent research from Material Focus paints a nuanced picture of the UK’s relationship with waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE).

Despite a reported 34% decrease since 2017 in the total number of electrical items thrown away, and a commendable 60% recycling rate for electrical items, the reality beneath the surface is far from a simple success story. The decreasing size and weight of our electronic gadgets may give the illusion of progress, but as we delve deeper, it becomes apparent that the fast tech culture is driving a complex and growing ‘waste’ issue.

UNTHA’s global marketing director, Katie Mallinson, explores further…

New disposal dilemmas

Material Focus, through a survey conducted by Opinium Research, reveals that a staggering 471 million ‘fast tech’ items end up in UK landfills each year. And that’s only a proportion of the 100,000 tonnes of e-waste we throw away annually.

Among the items rendered redundant are:

  • 260 million disposable vapes
  • 30 million LED, solar, and decorative lights
  • 26 million cables
  • 10 million USB sticks
  • 7 million cordless headphones
  • 5 million mini fans

Disposing of electrical items is a multifaceted challenge. Most devices contain toxic heavy metals like lead, mercury, cadmium, beryllium, precious metals like gold, and brominated flame retardants. If discarded with general refuse, these dangerous chemicals can leak into landfills, putting human, wildlife, and environmental health at risk. As such, they need to be broken down into individual components in order to be handled safely.

But that’s not all. Last year, more than 700 fires in bin lorries and recycling centres were caused by batteries that had been dumped in general waste. This inherent fire risk has had a knock-on impact on the waste industry, with insurance premiums skyrocketing and expensive safety systems now a prerequisite too. And that’s before we think about the potentially devastating consequences that such fire breakouts can have.

It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that approximately 40% of UK households harbour an average of 30 unused electrical items each. Whether it’s laziness, uncertainty surrounding correct disposal, or hesitance to step a foot wrong, these items now sit at the back of drawers gathering dust. And the issue is only being exacerbated by compact, low cost, fast tech items that fuel our search for ‘bigger and better’.

The reality is, within these vast volumes of e-waste lie valuable materials that can be effectively liberated, segregated, and recycled.

The hidden value of redundant tech

Let’s firstly remind ourselves that, in line with the Waste Hierarchy, preventing tech waste is the ultimate priority. If such material continues to be produced, reuse and refurbishment is the next best option, followed by recycling, recovery, and finally, safe disposal as the absolute last resort. Leveraging the components housed inside ‘redundant’ fast tech therefore plays a key role in driving our circular economy – providing it no longer has a useful life.

In terms of exactly how to retrieve these high-value resources, the manual breakdown of equipment, carried out by a certified professional, is one option.Naturally, this can be a very time-consuming and labour-intensive process. Depending on the waste stream and relevant regulatory frameworks, mechanical processing might therefore be better suited.

UNTHA’s shredders liberate high-value components that would otherwise remain ‘locked’ inside equipment. Shredding these down to a smaller, consistent fraction size enables them to be segregated with ease, before being separated for resale and recycling.

While shredding helps relieve metals of contaminants to boost the quality of the yield, sophisticated downstream segregation and separation equipment also boosts the tonnage from the line. So, beyond the environmental benefits, it makes commercial sense too.

Government initiatives take centre stage

The waste industry is no stranger to stringent regulations. But as we confront the allure of ‘fast tech’, environmental repercussions are setting the stage for tighter measures.

Recognising the urgency, the government has embarked on a consultation as part of the Resources and Waste Programme for England. This initiative aims to reform EU regulations on WEEE disposal, paving the way for a more reliable and efficient framework for households, producers, and retailers alike. The goal is to tackle the shocking 155,000 tonnes of smaller household electricals discarded annually and, in the process, mitigate the number of fires caused by lithium-ion batteries in discarded WEEE.

The ‘fast tech’ challenge is undeniably complex. Acknowledging the hidden costs of our disposable culture is the first step towards achieving a more sustainable relationship with innovation. With strategic adjustments at various levels, from personal choices to systemic reforms, we can collectively shape a future where the technological advancements we cherish don’t come at the expense of our environment.

Want to know more about UNTHA’s WEEE shredding technology? Explore how e-waste shredders are purposefully engineered to liberate high-value recyclates within redundant equipment – from small goods such as hard drives, up to large domestic appliances such as washing machines.

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