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, in 2019 we (the whole world) produced almost 54 million tonnes of the stuff—a 21% increase since 2014. That same year, the United Nations University (UNU) anticipated that e-waste would be the fastest-growing domestic waste stream globally by 2021. (Edie, 2019)

Why is e-waste a problem?

Accumulation of e-waste is problematic for many reasons, including:

  • Electronic goods are energy expensive, from cradle to grave—useful raw materials and precious metals must be extracted and/or processed (Green Alliance, 2020), they must be brought together and turned into a product; that product must then be transported from the factory to your office (making a few stops on the way); once in your office, 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 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 contain mercury, brominated flame retardants, chlorofluorocarbons and hydrochlorofluorocarbons—toxic substances which put scrapyard workers and people who live near landfill sites at risk.
  • Nature and habitats are disturbed by growing e-waste piles.

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 3 times the global average in e-waste. This puts us pretty high up on the leaderboard for ‘most e-waste generated per capita’; we were second only to Norway who have a population that’s ten times smaller than ours (the maths there is that our per capita e-waste mountain is actually much larger than Norway’s. And that’s before we consider the fact that they have a better recycling rate than us).

The long and short of it is that we’re producing a lot of e-waste and not leading the charge on recycling it; we can do better!  

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.

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 value of raw materials in the global e-waste generated in 2019 is equal to approximately $57 billion USD” (The Global E-waste Monitor 2020, UNU/ UNITAR)

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 facilitates green thinking and an eco-conscious culture amongst employees and gives businesses data about their carbon impact.

With 80% of 375 surveyed c-suite execs expecting a rise in workforce activism, and that activism posing a significant potential threat to corporate reputation (it could cost organisations up to 25% of global revenue each year), engaging with employees on these topics is no longer a ‘nice to have’ and more of a ‘why don’t we already have it?’ (Future of Work, Herbert Smith Freehills)

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/better: 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 Zero ambitions. 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 against scandal: The Guardian, World Economic Forum, Financial Times, The Telegraph—these are but a handful of publications that have run exposés on e-waste scandals over the past year. I’d hope that if you’ve found yourself here on Pawprint’s website that this wouldn’t be the clincher, but it’s worth a mention as it can help secure buy-in from skeptics.

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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