Electronic Waste and the Circular Economy Contents

Introduction: Electronics and E-waste, what are the problems?

1.Electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) has become essential to modern life. It enables instant communication and higher standards of living for people all over the world. In the UK we each buy just under three new electrical items every year.1 In 2015 the average European household had 44 electronic or electrical items at home plus another 45 lamps or light fittings.2 And this is only set to grow. For every three items that we throw away we buy four new ones.3 Researchers have found that 206,000 new electrical items are being bought each year that are not replacing old ones.4 The electronics industry in the UK is an important one, especially in the area of semiconductors. The manufacture of computers and electronics added £8.4bn in value to the economy in 2017 and it is a sector where productivity is growing significantly.5

Box 1: Electrical and Electronic Equipment

The UK Government defines electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) as equipment which is dependent on electric currents or electromagnetic fields to work and is used for generating, transferring and measuring these currents and fields. In simpler terms, it can be considered almost all equipment with a plug, electric cord or battery. The UK breaks EEE down into 14 categories that can be found in the Appendix.

Source: HM Government, Guidance: Electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) covered by the WEEE Regulations (26 October 2018), World Economic Forum, A New Circular Vision for Electronics: Time for a Global Reboot, (January 2019, p 7).

2.Professor Tim Cooper, a leading thinker in sustainable consumption and design at Nottingham Trent University,6 told us that the “current consumption of electrical and electronic goods is unsustainable” because of the sheer numbers consumed and the way we produce, use and dispose of them.7 Higher levels of disposable incomes, urbanisation and further industrialisation in parts of the world are making the problems worse.8 Worldwide estimates put just the number of devices connected to the internet between 25–50 billion in 2020, which is more than triple the number of people on the planet.9

3.The waste hierarchy ranks how we should manage all these purchased electronics throughout their life according to what is best for the environment. It gives top priority to preventing waste in the first place (‘Reduce’). When waste is created, it gives priority to preparing it for re-use (‘Re-use’), then recycling (‘Recycle’), then recovery (e.g. of energy), and last of all disposal (e.g. landfill).10 Contributors to this inquiry have focused on the need to re-design products, and re-think the resources we use to achieve this. The Royal Society of Chemistry’s addition of an extra layer to the waste hierarchy reflecting this priority is welcome (see figure 1). The waste hierarchy is linked and complementary to the concept of a “circular economy” (see box 2).

Figure 1: The Waste Hierarchy

Source: The Royal Society of Chemistry, Written Evidence to the EAC, (EWa0009)

4.This report aims to look at tackling the vast and growing problems in the electrical and electronic industry, by taking steps to move away from a linear model and towards a truly circular economy in electronics. These are also the ambitions contained in Our Waste, Our Resources: A Strategy for England, and The 25 year environment plan where the UK Government committed to becoming a world leader in resource efficiency (by doubling resource productivity by 2050), maximising the value and use of resources whilst minimising waste and moving towards a more circular economy. They aim to do this by improving the life-cycle environmental performance of products including electrical and electronic equipment and increasing their reuse, remanufacturing and recycling through promoting the waste hierarchy.11 12

Box 2: What is a circular economy?

The concept of ‘a circular economy aims to redefine growth’, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. A circular economy model aims to design out waste and pollution, keep products and materials in use, and regenerate natural systems–therefore ‘gradually decoupling economic activity from the consumption of finite resources’. It replaces the ‘end-of-life’ concept with restoration, shifts towards the use of renewable energy, eliminates the use of toxic chemicals, which impair reuse, and aims for the elimination of waste through the superior design of materials, products, systems, and within this, business models.

Source: Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Towards the Circular Economy, (2013), p 7.; Ellen MacArthur Foundation, What is a circular economy? [accessed 14 October 2019].

5.At present, the electrical and electronic goods industry operates on a traditional linear business model based on high throughput of goods.13 Much of this waste is not returned to the system, for example it is estimated that only a maximum of 12% of electronics are re-used,14 and we are not collecting, let alone recycling, more than 55% of electronics put on the market. Therefore, this has been called a linear economy model.15 This contrasts to a circular economy. In its report on Circular Consumer Electronics, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation outlined how a Circular Economy for electronics would look like instead:

They [consumer electronic products] are kept in use for as long as possible, either by the original user, or flowing to new users who will find new value and utility in them. Eventually, devices end up in the hands of specialists, who will professionally refurbish products, reuse or remanufacture the valuable components inside, and separate and recycle materials.16

6.Green Alliance outlined to us the benefits of a more circular economy:

In addition to generating considerable resource savings, such measures have the potential to create new jobs, to boost the economy through innovative circular business models and to build resilience by lowering demand for scarce resources while securing supplies of secondary material.17

7.Green Alliance and WRAP undertook detailed analysis that showed, if there was a true transformation to a closed loop or circular economy for materials, 517,000 jobs in the UK could be created by 2030 in regions and at pay grades where there is persistent unemployment, making a net contribution to UK employment.18 According to Green Alliance, UK manufacturers spend five times more on resource inputs than they do on labour. So, using resources better has been estimated to yield £10 billion in additional profits to the manufacturing sector.19 20 21

Electronics and E-waste – what problems are being caused?

Carbon emissions in consumption

8.Natural resource extraction and processing makes up approximately 50 per cent of the total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions produced worldwide.22 If current trends for the consumption of goods, including electronics, continue, greenhouse gas emissions from resource extraction and processing will increase by 43 per cent from 2015 to 2060.23

9.The Geological Society told us that the proportion of global energy used to crush rock, in order to remove the precious metals within it, is around 3–5%.24 To make the electrical and electronic devices we own there is also an extensive global supply chain.25 Greenhouse gas emissions are produced in the manufacturing of devices and Greenpeace points out that the majority of electronics production, from chip making to final assembly, is concentred in Asia, particularly in mainland China, but also in South Korea, Taiwan, Japan and Vietnam.26 It states that currently: “electricity generation in all these countries is predominantly reliant on fossil fuels, particularly coal, with access to renewable sources of electricity extremely limited.”27 Products also release emissions during use and at the end of their life, particularly if the E-waste is treated incorrectly. For example, the incorrect treatment of fridges and air-conditioners caused 0.3% of global emissions in 2019 according to the UN.28

10.DEFRA analysis in 2011 put Electronic Equipment and Machinery as the fifth most carbon emitting sector in the UK when measured by consumption of products.29

Resource extraction and use

11.Global resource extraction has grown rapidly. Extraction reached 92 billion tons in 2017, compared with 27 billion tonnes in 1970.30 The world’s overall consumption of raw materials is expected to double by 2060.31 High-income countries maintain the highest material footprint consumption of approximately 27 tonnes per person, which is more than 13 times the level of the low-income group.32 The billion richest individuals account for 72 per cent of the consumption of global resources, while the poorest 1.2 billion consume only one per cent.33 The International Resource panel has suggested that a sustainable level of resource consumption could be between six and eight tonnes per person per year34 and similarly academics at the University of Leeds suggests that 7.2 tonnes is sustainable.35 According to analysis the University undertook for DEFRA, the UK currently consumes 14.7 tonnes of material per person per year.36

12.The Institute for Materials, Minerals, Mining told us that mining, crushing and grinding of ore to extract the required minerals for electrical and electronic products has a significant and lasting impact on ecosystems and local communities, and that the process is energy intensive and requires significant land management.37 The extraction and processing of material resources (biomass, fossil fuels, metals and non-metallic minerals) currently contributes to more than 90 per cent of global biodiversity loss and water stress impacts.38 This is often caused by the chemicals used in industrial mining and its contaminating by-products, including in mining tailings. The mining of copper, gold and other precious metals found in electrical and electronic devices is a particularly toxic process with dangerous levels of mercury and cyanide used in extraction.39

Critical Raw Materials

13.Electronic and Electrical equipment contains valuable and rare materials, often found in small quantities in each device. According to the Geological society:

Many of the electronic devices we use every day such as computers, mobile phones and computers require a multitude of mined metals and materials to develop the sophisticated circuit boards, microchips and batteries in modern electronics required to deliver their function and performance. By way of example, the average smartphone requires 72 elements found in the periodic table, 62 of which are metals. These include zinc, gold, copper, palladium and tantalum to name just a few.

Box 3: Critical Raw Materials (CRMs)

40 41 42 43

Critical Raw Materials (CRMs) are all materials that are important to a nation, region or sector’s economy and that are, or could become difficult to get hold of.40

The European Commission publishes a list of CRMs which considers the main global producers, sources of supply and reliance on imports. The most recent list, published in 2020, lists 30 CRMs of strategic importance requiring secure and affordable supply—these are outlined in the appendix.41 The materials listed include indium, used in touchscreens and solar panels, and tantalum, used in micro-capacitors for a range of applications from mobile phones to wind turbines. The UK does not publish its own CRMs list.42

The Royal Society of Chemistry predicts that the earth’s natural supply of six CRMs in smart phones will come under serious threat. These are: gallium, arsenic, yttrium, silver, indium and tantalum. 43

Source: The Royal Society of Chemistry, (ELE0047)

14.At our high rate of consumption and discard, vast quantities of Critical Raw Materials are used and lost. When we export waste for dumping, send it to landfill, incineration and even low-quality shredding, we are losing these materials. Yet they are vital to our future, not just for electronic items, but also in electric cars, wind turbines, solar panels; in healthcare products like pacemakers and artificial joints; and in our defence and aerospace sectors. The development of low carbon technologies to mitigate climate change and reduce global emissions is expected to increase demand for certain raw materials by a factor of 20 by 2030.44 However recovery rates for many raw materials are low, often at below one per cent.45

Figure 2: Countries accounting for largest share of global supply of CRMs

Source: European Commission, Study on the EU’s list of Critical Raw Materials, 2020

15.Due to their importance, we are seeing a global race to secure the supply of these rare materials, particularly as these materials often come only from very few countries. Germany and China have been competing for lithium rights in Bolivia,46 Tesla has turned to mining its own lithium in Nevada,47 there are trade wars between South Korea and Japan based on critical resources,48 and the USA and China are competing for rare earth metals.49 Since BP has declared that ‘peak’ oil consumption, if not here already, is around the corner, the struggles for materials needed in low-carbon technologies are only going to increase.50 51

16.The gold, tin, tungsten and tantalum used in electronics are considered “conflict minerals” because their mining and sale have been linked with funding killings, violence, rape, and other human rights abuses in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and other conflict zones.52 Cobalt, another mineral used in lithium-ion batteries, is also considered a conflict material due to its rising value. The DRC, one of the world’s poorest countries, is the source of two-thirds of the world’s cobalt, with the US Department of Labor highlighting high levels of child labour in its extraction.53

A tsunami of E-waste

17.The UN has warned that we are facing a “tsunami of E-waste rolling across the world” because of growing consumption, short product lifespans, difficulty of repair and inadequate recycling.54 Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) is thought to be both the fastest growing waste stream globally and the fastest growing waste stream in Europe, where it is increasing at a rate of three to five per cent per year.55

18.According to the Global E-waste Monitor published by the UN on 2 July 2020, the UK generated the second highest amount of E-waste per person in the world, after Norway, at 23.9kg of E-waste. This far exceeds the world average of 7.3 kg per capita and the European average (already the world’s highest continent) of 16.2kg.56 A report by the consultancy firm Eunomia for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), highlights that, when comparing like-for-like, the UK has significantly lower collection and recycling rates for E-waste than other countries in the European region.57

19.When we are not hoarding old electronics at home in cupboards, we often put them into our black bin bags where they get sent to landfill or incineration.58 Old electronics often get sent overseas where they are dumped or treated in inferior conditions, leaching the toxic chemicals that they contain causing further environmental damage. In fact, the UK is one of the worst offenders for exporting waste electronics.59 This wastage is all the more concerning because of the significant impact extracting new materials and creating new electrical and electronic items has on the environment.

Materials in E-waste

20.E-waste has a potential value of $62.5 billion annually.60 The economic value comes from precious metals used in products such as gold, silver, copper, platinum and other critical raw materials such as tungsten and indium. According to the World Economic Forum the average smartphone contains electrical components valued at $100.49 at the point of retail. They also estimate that recycling these raw materials could be worth up to $11.5 billion. Additionally, plastics, glass and ceramics could be used as secondary raw materials.61 There could be significant environmental and economic benefit from keeping these materials in use and not wasting them. The World Economic Forum said that mining discarded electronics for gold uses 80 per cent less emissions than compared with mining it from the ground. Further, recycled metals are two to ten times more energy efficient than their virgin equivalents to extract.62 There is often far more valuable material per tonne of E-waste then the equivalent weight of mined ore—particularly for gold and copper. As a result, one study found that mining from ore could, with the right processes in place, be 13 times more expensive than recovering metals from E-waste.63

21.However, after passing through current waste management processes, the secondary raw materials retain a fraction of the value of their components or used appliances for resale.64 Even when E-waste is disposed of correctly at household waste recycling centres, and not exported,65 there are concerns about the way it is recycled. The Green Alliance told us:

At the end of life, most [electronic waste] is treated through low quality recycling that relies on shredding, leading to the loss of highly engineered parts and valuable critical raw materials.66

22.Shredding also releases chemicals and contaminants including polychlorinated biphenyls and polychlorinated dibenzodioxins.67 This ‘shredder mix’, considered hazardous, is exported to Belgium and Sweden amongst other countries where it is put through high temperatures, destroying most of the mix at a high energy cost, to extract only small quantities of metals.68 There is very little materials recovery infrastructure in the UK and no major government funding source for recycling infrastructure that is not incineration or energy from waste.69 70

Exportation and toxic chemicals

23.Many of the chemicals contained within electronic products are toxic including arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, lead and mercury.71 Flame retardants are also found in waste electronics,72 though some companies are reducing the amounts they add to newer electronics. These can persist in the environment and in the dust in our homes and can be particularly harmful.73 74 This means electronic products need high-quality treatment and recycling infrastructure when they become waste. The Basel Convention, to which the UK is a signatory, has made it illegal to export electronic waste to address the risks of waste being transferred to countries with inadequate infrastructure to safely process E-waste. However, an investigation in 2019 by Basel Action Network (BAN) found that the UK is the worst offender in Europe for illegal E-waste exports to developing countries, with most of its waste going to Africa.75 This re-iterated the findings of the UN study “Person in a Port” that found the UK to be the second worst offender world-wide for sending used and waste electronics to Nigeria.76

24.Green Alliance and the Joint Trade Association, the UK association of Electronics manufacturers, told us that workers in countries where E-waste is exported risk physical injury by manually breaking up electronics without protective equipment and through the burning of plastic to access valuable metals like copper, which exposes people to heavy metals with neurotoxic effects and development problems.77 78 The Basel Action Network highlighted the risks of allowing the export of E-waste for the communities living near to dumps where it ends up:

A recent study we did with IPEN, the group working on POPs [persistent organic pollutants], found some of the highest levels of brominated dioxins ever recorded in the world at the Agbogbloshie dumpsite in Ghana, where so much of the European electronic waste ends up and where it is burned. They tested the chicken eggs in the slum there—where the workers are living among these chickens, eating the meat and the eggs—and every day they are poisoning themselves, not only from what they breathe but from what they eat as well.79

1 Recyclenow, HOW ARE ELECTRICAL ITEMS RECYCLED?, [accessed 08 October 2020].

3 Green Alliance, (EWa0006); WRAP, Switched on to value: powering business change, (2017).

4 Material Focus, Electrical waste – challenges and opportunities, (16 July 2020).

5 MAKE UK, Sector Bulletin: Electronics, (January 2020).

6 Nottingham Trent University, Tim Cooper, Professor, [accessed 10 November 2020].

7 Professor Tim Cooper, (ELE0022).

8 Professor Tim Cooper, (ELE0022).

9 World Economic Forum, A New Circular Vision for Electronics: Time for a Global Reboot (January 2019), p 10.

10 Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Guidance on applying the Waste Hierarchy, (June 2011).

11 Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Our waste, our resources: A strategy for England (December 2018), p 7.

12 Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, 25 Year Environment Plan, (11 January 2018, updated 16 May 2019), p 83.

13 Professor Tim Cooper, (ELE0022).

14 WRAP, Switched on to value: powering business change, (2017).

15 Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Towards the Circular Economy, (2013), p 22.

16 Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Circular Consumer Electronics: An initial exploration (April 2018), p 4.

17 Green Alliance, (EWa0006).

18 Wrap & Green Alliance, Employment and the Circular Economy, (2015) p 3.

20 Green Alliance, Unemployment and the Circular Economy in Europe, (December 2015).

22 United Nations, Global Resource Outlook, (2019), p 7.

23 UN, Global Resource Outlook, (2019), p 7.

24 Geological Society, (ELE0038).

25 Institute for Materials, Minerals and Mining, (EWa0016).

26 Greenpeace USA, Guide to Greener Electronics, (2017).

27 Greenpeace USA, Guide to Greener Electronics, (2017).

28 Forti, Balde et al., The Global E-waste Monitor 2020, (June 2020), p 3.

29 Sustainability Research Institute et al., Report for DEFRA: UK Consumption Emissions by Sector and Origin, (May 2011).

30 UN, Global Resource Outlook, (2019), p 7.

31 World Economic Forum, A New Circular Vision for Electronics: Time for a Global Reboot, January (2019), p 10.

32 UN, Global Resource Outlook, (2019), p 8.

33 UN, Global Resource Outlook, (2019), p 126.

35 University of Leeds, A Good life for all within planetary boundaries, Supplementary information, (2017), p 8.

36 HM Government, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Resources and Waste Strategy – Monitoring progress, (August 2020), p 18.

37 Institute for Materials, Minerals and Mining, (EWa0016).

38 UN, Global Resource Outlook, (2019), p 126.

39 UN, Global Resource Outlook, (2019), p 76.

40 Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology, Access to critical materials, (13 September 2019).

42 Royal Society of Chemistry, (ELE0047).

43 Royal Society of Chemistry, (EWa0033).

44 Royal Society of Chemistry, (ELE0047).

45 World Economic Forum, A New Circular Vision for Electronics: Time for a Global Reboot (January 2019), p 11.

47 Forbes, Does Tesla’s Lithium Announcement Mean All Battery Makers Are Set To Become Miners, (1 October 2020), [accessed 17 October 2020].

48 East Asia Forum, Semiconductor tech war underlies the Japan-South Korea trade dispute, (24 September 2019), [accessed 17 October 2020].

49 Financial Times, US-China: Washington revives plans for its rare earths industry, (14 September 2020), [accessed 17 October 2020].

50 Carbon Brief, Analysis: World has already passed ‘peak oil’, BP figures reveal, 15 September 2020, [accessed 17 October 2020].

51 New Statesman, How the dawning era of declining fossil fuel consumption will reshape geopolitics, (23 September 2020) [accessed 17 October 2020].

52 Which.co.uk, The Hidden Cost of your smartphone, (26 March 2019), [accessed 10 October 2020].

53 U.S. Department of Labor, 2018 list of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor, (September 2018).

54 UN, UN environment chief warns of ‘tsunami’ of e-waste at conference on chemical treaties, (05 May 2015), [accessed 10 September 2020].

55 City University (ELE0036).

56 Forti, Balde et al., The Global E-waste Monitor 2020, (June 2020), p 3.

57 See “Collection Targets” below.

58 The University of Leeds research suggests that 18% of WEEE goes, incorrectly, for incineration before any disassembly takes place. This doesn’t take into account components of WEEE that are incinerated after disassembly or shredding. (Resource Recovery from Waste, University of Leeds, (ELE0046).

59 Basel Action Network, Holes in the Circular Economy; WEEE Leakage from Europe, (February 2019).

60 World Economic Forum, A New Circular Vision for Electronics: Time for a Global Reboot, (January 2019), p 15.

61 World Economic Forum, A New Circular Vision for Electronics: Time for a Global Reboot, (January 2019), p 15.

62 World Economic Forum, A New Circular Vision for Electronics: Time for a Global Reboot, (January 2019), p 11.

65 Q74.

66 Green Alliance, (EWa0006).

67 The Institute for Materials, Minerals and Mining (IOM3), (EWa0016).

68 AATF Forum, (EWa0030).

69 Green Alliance, (EWa0006).

70 Resource Recovery from Waste, University of Leeds, Written evidence to the EAC, (ELE0046).

71 Environmental Services Association, (ELE0026).

72 Q78.

74 Kademoglou, K. et al. Legacy and alternative flame retardants in Norwegian and UK indoor environment: Implications of human exposure via dust ingestion. (2017).

75 Puckett et al., Basel Action Network, Holes in the Circular Economy: WEEE Leakage from Europe, (2019).

76 Odeyingbo, Olusegun, Nnorom, Innocent and Deubzer, Otmar, Person in the Port Project: Assessing Import of Used Electrical and Electronic Equipment into Nigeria. UNU-ViE SCYCLE and BCCC Africa., (2017), p 35.

77 Joint Trade Association, (ELE0045).

78 Green Alliance, (ELE0023).

79 Q72.

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