By Lizzy Ratcliffe

Following our Precious Elements campaign last year – which raised awareness of the supply risks to elements in our personal devices such as mobile phones – we have conducted further research to quantify how the COVID-19 pandemic may have had an impact on the problem of waste electronic equipment.

Last year we discovered that there could be 40 million or more unused devices being hoarded in drawers and cupboards around the UK.

Now we’ve found that this problem is growing even more, with 12.8% of the 2,000 UK residents we surveyed saying they had acquired new IT equipment to enable them to work from home during the pandemic. Of these, nearly as many said they had put redundant tech in the bin (10.8%) as said they had recycled it (12.8%). And a further 10% of said they had a stockpile of old IT equipment they didn’t need as a result of changing their working habits.

Later this year we will release the full results of our global survey, which looked at technology consumption during the pandemic as well as attitudes towards personal technology and sustainability.

Meanwhile, Currys PC World told us that fitness trackers were up 45% year on year, and gaming technology sales were up 121%. With many gyms across the country set to remain closed – the traditional time for making weight loss and fitness resolutions – this is a trend that looks set to continue well into 2021.

The figures are revealed as part of our ongoing Precious Elements campaign, which draws attention to supply risks to some of the precious elements used in consumer technology, such as gold, yttrium and indium.

Prof. Tom Welton, President of the Royal Society of Chemistry, said: “Clearly the coronavirus pandemic caused a rapid change to our work and lifestyle patterns, but a significant unintended consequence we are now facing is a rapid increase to the UK’s already growing e-waste crisis. That nearly as many people are binning their old tech as recycling it is a huge concern.

“We increasingly think about the sustainability of other items around the home, such as plastics and cardboard packaging. If we’re to have sustainable technology, we need to start thinking in the same way about our old gadgets, or we risk running out of the elements we need to produce these items while continuing to exacerbate the environmental damage caused by the consumer tech industry.”

The Royal Society of Chemistry was invited to give evidence to the UK Government’s Environmental Audit Committee report into e-waste following its Precious Elements campaign last year, which found that up to 40 million unused gadgets were stockpiled in people’s homes because they didn’t know how to dispose of them. The recommendations have now been put to the government for possible inclusion in the new Environment Bill in 2021.

Meanwhile, as of 1 January 2021, retailers distributing electrical and electronic equipment are now required to offer in-store take back of items equivalent to those sold to consumers in-store.

In addition, retailers with greater than 400 square metres of floor space will be required to accept all items of very small Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) regardless of whether customers are replacing the item by buying new products or not. Very small WEEE is defined as items with dimensions no greater than 25cm on any side/edge.

Prof. Welton said: “We know chemists are working on the tricky problem of how to separate more critical raw materials from electronic waste for recycling purposes, but we need local recycling infrastructure that enables the waste to be collected first.

“While we welcome the changes coming in to force at the beginning of January to ensure that retailers operate take-back schemes – an issue highlighted in the Environmental Audit Committee’s report to government – it’s only possible to extract some of the more common raw materials on a large scale at the end of life. Many precious metals are never recovered.”

Jason Love, Professor of Molecular Inorganic Chemistry at the University of Edinburgh, whose research group designs new chemical reagents for metal recycling, believes chemistry is key to tackling this problem.

“Existing methods of extracting precious metals from technology include smelting which can produce harmful emissions, is energy intensive, and requires further downstream separation processes,” he said.

“Chemists are now working on more efficient and sustainable ways to separate these metals. This can involve dissolving the waste materials and then using carefully designed molecules that identify and extract the different metals. Understanding and controlling the interactions that lead to separation are very much fundamental chemistry challenges.”

Prof. Welton concluded: “If we’re to successfully tackle the UK’s e-waste crisis, citizens, governments, retailers, manufacturers and scientists need to work together to make technology and our consumption habits more sustainable.”

“In the meantime, we are urging everyone to be more conscious about how they use and reuse technology. For example, if a device is not useful to you anymore, try selling it, donating it or giving it to someone else. Recycle it as a last resort – but do not put waste technology in the bin.”

The RSC’s survey of 2,000 people across the UK about their tech consumption and recycling habits found more than a quarter (26.9%) of people across the UK started to work from home for the first time as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, but just a third of those (33%) took existing office equipment home.

Nearly the same number (29%) said their employer had purchased new tech on their behalf to support the change in working habits, and almost one in five (18.8%) purchased new IT equipment at their own expense to support home working.

A further 17% said they used the need to work from home as an opportunity to upgrade their IT equipment when they weren’t previously planning on doing so.

This is reinforced by sales figures from tech retailer Currys PC World, which show there was a 41% increase in computing sales between stores first re-opening on 1st May and 22nd August, compared to the same period in 2019.

However, the electrical retailer, which also offers a free recycling service for small e-waste such as computers or gadgets, says returns of redundant equipment have dropped. While stores were closed for 13 weeks this year due to restrictions, e-waste returns were down 81% in 2020 when compared to the pre-lockdown period.

Kesah Trowell, Head of Sustainable Business for Currys PC World said: “All through the pandemic we have been experiencing unprecedented demand for the technology that has been keeping families fed, clean and entertained as well as helping people to work from home, but it is vital that people don’t stockpile old or unwanted tech.

“We already recycle 65,000 tonnes of waste electricals each year, making us the biggest e-waste recycler among UK retailers, but are committed to doing more through our e-waste doorstep recycling scheme and store take-back scheme. Regardless of whether you have bought your tech from us, we will take any unwanted equipment to help declutter households and the environment at the same time.”

Chemical researchers in academia and industry are working to develop solutions and the Royal Society of Chemistry is collaborating with them to communicate recommendations to policy makers.