Christian Arno

E-waste: what is it, and what can your business do about it?

3 min Read
Young girl smiling down at laptop

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 2021—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 explores 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.

How much e-waste do we produce in the UK?

Diagram showing kgs of e-waste generated in 2019 per person; average 7; EU 16; China 20; United States 21; UK 24; Norway 26

In 2019, the average UK citizen generated more than three times the global average in e-waste. This puts us pretty high up on the leaderboard for ‘most e-waste generated per capita’—second only to Norway. Still, not a great place to be.

What can businesses do to reduce e-waste?

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

  • Creating a circular model which ensures all viable EEE is put back into the system
  • 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 in every business, because it depends on variables like how much, what type and what the residual value of the equipment is plus the capacity of the business to handle its ‘waste’ management.

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The hands-off approach to e-waste:

If you don’t have time to get into the nitty-gritty of how your electronics are disposed of, have a look at reclamation services available in your area. Office furniture experts Bureau, for example, offers an IT reclamation solution that removes the burden of dealing with e-waste; is cost-free at worst (financially beneficial at best); and promises that nothing goes to landfill. Repurposed assets can even be donated and help to reduce digital poverty, but more on that later.  

The hands-on approach to e-waste:

If you’re keen for a more hands-on approach, purpose-driven media brand Edie recommends partnering with a consultant in the early stages. An expert will help you identify:

  • What processes will work for your business and what benefits you can expect to see from them
  • The best providers of repairs, recycling, and used products or compliance services for your business’ needs

They can also help you build internal knowledge around legislation, and arrange training for your procurement team to ensure they purchase goods that align with your policy.  

One thing I’d recommend, regardless of whether you go for a hands-on or hands-off approach, is to dedicate time and energy to cultivating a green culture throughout your business. Redesigning processes and implementing policies is important, but so is buy-in from those following them.

Of course, this is where I subtly drop in Pawprint (a smooth segue, why thank you). Our business tool unlocks sustainable thinking and an eco-conscious culture amongst employees, and helps businesses gather data about their carbon impact.

Business benefits of an e-waste policy:

  • Financial gain: of course, this depends on all of the aforementioned variables but according to Edie, 'there is typically some net value to be re-captured'

  • Climate targets can be 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)

  • Staying ahead of regulation. The government is under pressure from respected institutions like techUK and UNU to introduce tighter regulations around e-waste. Implementing a policy 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. 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 into opportunity:

Our friends at Bureau pointed us towards a charity called Donate Digital; an initiative that was launched by Rebuyer and Northumbrian Water to help tackle digital poverty. 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.

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