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Data fears and lack of know-how hinder e-scrap recycling

The challenge of recycling e-scrap from households has been highlighted by a recent survey in the UK showing that the vast majority of people with unwanted electrical devices have no plans to recycle them.

Data security and a lack of knowledge about how and where to recycle are among the barriers identified in the study by the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC). A survey concluded that found that half of UK households have at least one unused electronic device while 45% have up to five.

This national picture echoes research by the United Nations University in 2017 that 1.7 billion cell phones are sold each year worldwide and phones are typically used for only 18 months. Around 10-12% are recycled. The UNU research put the total loss of resources annually at US$ 55 billion (EUR 50 billion).

A growing problem

The RSC study also highlighted age profiles suggesting the hoarding could get worse because young people possess more of these items. More than half (52%) of people under 25 have 10 or more gadgets in their home whereas only 39% of 35-44 year olds have 10 or more.

When asked why they don’t recycle old devices, more than one in three (37%) of those with unused devices at home said data and security fears made them uneasy while a quarter said they don’t recycle them because they prefer to sell them. Almost a third (29%) also said they didn’t know where to go to recycle old tech.

RSC commissioned the study because of concern at the future availability of elements found in many electrical items, such as tin, gold, tungsten and tantalum.

Call for action

Robert Parker, ceo of RSC, said: ’Reuse and recycling are the best options available to us but, even if recycled, it is still extremely difficult to recover some of these elements from unused devices. We need action now – from governments, manufacturers and retailers – to make reuse and recycling much easier, and we must enable a new generation of chemistry talent to help.’

Mark Burrows-Smith, ceo of the UK producer compliance scheme REPIC, said the study confirmed similar research by the scheme in 2018.’Information and awareness are key to educating the public to understand the important role we all need to play in responsibly recycling our e-waste. Establishing new recycling habits to capture the many types of waste electrical and electronic products needs to be a priority.’

He said the EU’s Urban Mine Platform to assess the flows of precious and base metals and critical raw materials in products was a key tool to understanding the challenges.

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