Following a Christmas and Black Friday splurge at the end of 2020, U.K. consumers have either condemned to landfill or hoarded some five million unwanted electrical devices with a donation value of $218 million, new research indicates.
According to a study commissioned by British non-profit Material Focus, nearly three million Britons were expected to send at least 2.7 million older, unwanted electrical items such as headphones, laptops and speakers, to landfill in the new year. More than two million were likely to hoard some 2.2 million unused electricals at home. Meanwhile, only 19% of the 2,000 of those surveyed said they intended to donate unused electricals to those in need.
The research also found that Brits threw away some 573,588 kilometers of Christmas lights every four years—enough, if strung together, to reach the moon and halfway back.
Britain is one of the world’s worst offenders when it comes to e-waste. A report released in November by the cross-parliamentary Environment Audit Committee found that approximately 40% of such waste—some 209,000 tons—is illegally exported overseas. Annually, the committee found, 155,000 tons of e-waste are sent to domestic landfill or incineration sites. On the global stage, the U.K. generates 23.9 kilograms of e-waste per person, second only to Norway. “This far exceeds the world average of 7.3 kilograms per capita and the European average (already the world’s highest continent) of 16.2kg,” the committee said.
Material Focus released its findings to promote an electricals reuse campaign titled Give-Back January, to encourage consumers to donate their unwanted gadgets to charity or otherwise recycle them. The group’s executive director Scott Butler explained the rationale behind the campaign.
“We all know that U.K. households go on a big spending spree between Black Friday and Christmas,” he said. “Give-Back January is designed to give people an opportunity to do something useful with their old unwanted electricals. With so many people experiencing financial hardship or in need of more tech to respond to the events of 2020, we all need to consider donating or recycling our old electrical items to those in need.”
To this end, the campaign has a postcode tracker to help people locate recycling and donation points near their homes. The site also highlights the work of a dozen other U.K. bodies that facilitate donating devices to those who need them. These include the social donating platform Freegle; Connect the Love, which provides devices to care home residents and hospital inpatients; and Reuse Network, which redistributes items to people in need.
Fiona Hoggard, a London resident and one of those surveyed, was concerned about the unused electricals that ended up accumulating in her house. “I tend to hang on to things that still work or are high value, like laptops, cameras, iPads … it seems a shame to throw them out for recycling if they still function,” she said.
Hoggard, director of a fundraising consultancy, said she learned from the campaign that 75% of electricals contain precious metals such as gold, aluminum and copper. “That’s a much higher proportion than I was expecting,” she said. “It definitely seems cost-effective to reclaim these metals from old items.”
Also a surprise was the finding that electrical items comprised the fastest growing waste stream in the world. “I was aware that recycling electricals was sometimes hard to do,” she said, “I was just not aware of the scale of the problem.” For this reason, Hoggard said she would prefer to recycle her gadgets, but confessed, “I always think they might be useful for something, but know deep down that you’ll never use them again.”
Steve Tooze, a trend analyst also surveyed by Material Focus, agreed. “It feels criminal to chuck them in landfill,” Tooze said, referring to the box of miscellaneous gadgets he keeps under his bed—a collection of defunct laptops, old smartphones and power connectors. “I honestly have no idea what to do with them.”
Tooze said he has been hoarding electrical appliances for at least a decade, but would like to put them to some positive use, noting “we hear about companies and governments scouring the globe to find fresh sources of rare materials for smartphones.”
According to a Material Focus report featured by Forbes.com in July, Brits have some 527 million electrical devices cluttering up their homes. Every year, 500,000 tons of e-waste are thrown away, hoarded, stolen or illegally exported.
Globally, some 54 million metric tons of e-waste were produced in 2019—a weight equivalent to 350 ocean-going cruise ships. The majority of that waste is generated by wealthy Western consumers, with much of it ending up in developing nations in Africa and South Asia.
In its November report, the Environment Audit Committee put forward 27 recommendations that government and private enterprise could use to exert some control over the e-waste situation. These included compelling retailers to collect old appliances from customers’ homes free of charge, reducing taxes on repair services, and financial incentives for reuse schemes.