51 per cent of UK households hoarding unused electronic devices

51 per cent of UK households have at least one unused electronic device – such as mobile phones, computers, smart TVs, MP3 players or e-readers – according to new figures released by The Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) revealing the extent of WEEE stockpiling in the home.

An image of some mobile phones

The figures, taken from a survey of 2,353 people,  also found that 45 per cent have up to five unused electronic devices in their home. 82 per cent of these have no plans to recycle or sell on their devices.

The issue is most prevalent amongst young people, with 52 per cent of 16-24 year olds having 10 or more gadgets in their home.

The survey asked why people were so reluctant to recycle old gadgets, with 37 per cent of those responding that data and security fears made them uneasy, and 29 per cent saying that they didn’t know where to go to recycle old devices.

Robert Parker, CEO of the RSC, said: “Chemical scientists are already working to find ground-breaking solutions – by investigating long-term substitutes for rare elements in devices, or by finding new chemical methods to extract precious materials and reuse them – but we all can and must do more.

“As individuals, reuse and recycling are the best options available to us, but even if recycled it is still extremely difficult to recover some of these elements from unused devices.

“We need action now – from governments, manufacturers and retailers – to make reuse and recycling much easier, and we must enable a new generation of chemistry talent to help. The UK has a tremendous opportunity to become a world leader in this and set an example for other nations to follow.”

Recovery of rare earth elements

Electronic devices such as smartphones contain rare earth elements (REEs) – a set of 15 metallic elements that display unique magnetic, luminescent and catalytic properties. As these elements are used in such small amounts, they are incredibly difficult to recycle, meaning that many end up in landfill rather than being reused. Given the ubiquity of electronic devices such as smartphones containing these REEs, that is a considerable amount of valuable material going unrecovered.

The University of Birmingham has recently been granted almost €5 million (£4.35m) in funding to develop a new technology for reclaiming rare earth metals from magnets, aiming to cut down on the amount of rare earth elements going to landfill.

The RSC revealed that 59 per cent of respondents would be more likely to recycle their old gadgets knowing that they contain these rare elements, as well as conflict elements such as gold and toxic ones such as arsenic.

Recycling WEEE

The amount of waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) collected for recycling in the UK fell short of targets in 2018. People keeping products for longer has been highlighted as a possible reason for this, and indeed the RSC survey confirms that consumers tend to hold onto unused gadgets rather than recycle or sell them.

The results from the RSC survey corroborates 2018 research from compliance scheme REPIC, which found that those aged between 16 and 29 were less likely than the over 60s to recycle electronic items.

Mark Burrows-Smith, CEO of REPIC said: “The RSC report further confirms the research reported by REPIC in our 2018 survey. Information and awareness are key to educating the public to understand the important role we all need to play in responsibly recycling our e-waste. Establishing new recycling habits to capture the many types of waste electrical and electronic products needs to be a priority.

“This is particularly important for young people; our 2018 survey highlighted 16-29 year olds owning more items of technology than anyone else, with respondents from this age bracket estimating the value of their outdated or broken EEE items at over £100 more than the 30-44 age group, and over £600 more than those aged 60 and above.”

To track the flow of precious metals and critical raw materials (CRMs), a team of 17 European organisations launched the Urban Mine Platform – a multinational database – in 2017, as part of the ProSUM project (Prospecting Secondary Raw Materials in the Urban Mine and Mining Waste).

Burrows-Smith explained: “Sound intelligence and good data are also key to understanding how we access sources of critical raw materials. In 2017 the Urban Mine Platform was created by 17 partners in the ProSUM project to present the flows of precious and base metals and critical raw materials in products in use and throughout their journey to end of life. The Platform was designed as a useful tool to help European industries by providing a better picture of where waste sources are and, more importantly, giving a detailed breakdown of the valuable materials in the waste stream.

“We hope news about the findings from the RSC’s research will encourage more UK consumers to recycle any old gadgets currently stored in their homes, so that any valuable and critical raw materials they might contain can be captured for recycling.”

You can read the survey in full on The Royal Society of Chemistry's website.

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