Jennifer Ulloa

E-waste: what is it and why does it matter to students?

We all use electronics every single day. Learn why it's important to care about e-waste, especially while at university!
1 min Read

E-waste is the waste produced by all of the electrical and electronic goods we throw out. 

If you’re imagining towering piles of computers, phones, microwaves, etc... you’d be right.

According to the World Economic Forum, we produced almost 57.4 million tonnes of e-waste in the last year—outweighing the Great Wall of China, the world's heaviest human construction! If nothing changes, the WEF predicts that e-waste will hit 74 million tonnes by 2030.

The main drivers of this e-waste exploration comes down to our increasing consumption of electronics globally; shorter periods between new product releases; and limited options for repairing items.

‍Why is e-waste a problem?

Electronic goods are energy expensive, from cradle to grave. Raw materials and precious metals must be extracted and/or processed, then brought together and turned into a product; that product must then be transported from the factory to your home or office—likely with a few stops along the way.

Once it's there, that item will spend the rest of its days sipping on your domestic power supply. With so much embodied carbon wrapped up in their life cycle, sending electronic items to landfill is a wasteful way to spend our world's remaining carbon budget!

What’s more, some e-waste slowly releases greenhouse gases as it rots. According to the World Economic Forum, in 2019 'about 98 million tonnes are thought to have leaked from discarded fridges and air conditioners, which is approximately 0.3% of global energy-related emissions.'

E-waste can also contain mercury, brominated flame retardants, chlorofluorocarbons and hydrochlorofluorocarbons—toxic substances which put scrapyard workers and people who live near landfill sites at risk, as well as endangering natural habitats and biodiversity.

What can students do to reduce e-waste?

A lot of electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) can be refurbished, recycled or resold. Students can support the drive to reduce e-waste in the UK by:

  • Check out the University of Edinburgh's IT reuse programme;
  • Only purchasing new equipment from responsible suppliers or purchasing refurbished equipment;
  • Considering how long products will live for and what the end-of-life process will be before buying them.

A circular model for EEE will look different for everyone, because it depends on variables like how much, what type and what the residual value of the equipment is, plus the capacity of the University to handle its ‘waste’ management.

Student benefits of e-waste mindfulness:

  • Helps you save money. Of course, this depends on all of the aforementioned elements but according to Edie, 'there is typically some net value to be re-captured,' which means that practising is great for student budgets!
  • You can ensure climate targets are met faster. In an evaluation of the carbon footprint of WEEE management in the UK by Elsevier, it was found that '(r)euse was… the most favourable end-of-life management option in terms of potential climate impact, followed by recycling, with landfill identified as being the least favourable option.' Closing the loop on your EEE will contribute to achieving both your internal climate targets, as well as wider UK net zeroambitions. Research from CIEMAP estimates that 'improving material use could reduce emissions by nearly 200 MtCO2e from by 2032.' (Less in, more out. Green Alliance, 2018)
  • Leading by example. The government is under pressure from respected institutions like techUK and UNU to introduce tighter regulations around e-waste. Starting these habits now will simply save you time later when it’s no longer an option. Plus, you’ll reap the other benefits for longer.
  • Safeguarding your reputation & help other students. Over the past year, e-waste has hit the headlines of The Guardian, World Economic Forum, Financial Times, The Telegraph—needless to say, e-waste is increasingly capturing people's attentions. Heading off the problem now can prevent you from ending up above the fold!

Turning e-waste literacy into an academic opportunity:

With one in three families in the UK not having enough computers for their children to study while locked-down, it’s more important than ever to organise how you deal with old or unwanted EEE.

Still have questions? Have a read through the University of Edinburgh's Waste Strategy Policy for more details.

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