Tackle e-waste mountain, to protect the planet and save money, says new report

Libby Peake Libby PeakeHead of resource policy (on maternity leave until October 2022)020 7630 4529lpeake@green-alliance.org.uk
Electronic goods are increasingly important to keeping people connected. But many are destined not to last, and short lived electronic devices and electrical appliances are a bigger problem in the UK compared to other countries, according to a new report. [1] The country generates the second highest amount of e-waste per person in the world.
This unnecessary waste frustrates consumers and also comes with a hefty environmental price tag: the process of producing an average smartphone, for instance, emits 60kg of CO2 equivalent, which is over 300 times the weight of the phone itself.
At a time of national crisis when household budgets are increasingly squeezed and consumers need protecting from high costs, a new report says that the UK should act swiftly post-Brexit to improve standards and surveillance and avoid a flood of poorly made products onto the UK market. This should include setting new UK standards for characteristics like durability, repairability and upgradeabilty and better enforcing existing standards.
Currently, the UK generates more e-waste per person than any country in the world, with the exception of Norway. [2] This high turnover is particularly problematic for items like smartphones and other IT equipment, where the bulk of environmental impacts happen during the production phase. Two thirds of people in Britain surveyed are often frustrated by products that don’t last and three quarters want the government to do something about it. [3]
For instance, consumers say they want phones that last more than five years, but they normally last just two to three years. New research by PwC for Green Alliance shows that extracting 75g of metals used in a typical smartphone requires at least 6.5kg of ore to be mined. The phone manufacturing process emits 60kg of CO2 equivalent, which is more than 300 times the weight of the finished product. [4], [5]
One reason consumers are being exposed to shoddy appliances is poor enforcement of product standards, with up to a quarter of those sold not meeting current standards for energy efficiency. This means that the UK is missing out on 800,000 tonnes of CO2 equivalent savings a year, and that those UK businesses producing goods to high standards are being undercut by others that get away with selling poorer quality products.
Better enforcement is needed, especially if new requirements to address short lifespans are created. The report suggests this should include:
  • adequate funding, including for sufficient staffing to monitor and enforce
  • better communication and engagement with producers and online marketplaces
    to ensure they know the legal requirements;
  • naming and shaming producers that violate standards, as in the Japanese Top
    Runner system, where compliance is estimated to be 100 per cent;
  • heavy fines for repeatedly non-compliant companies, with revenue ringfenced to
    pay for market surveillance
Libby Peake, head of resource policy at Green Alliance, said:
“Even before the pandemic, people were frustrated by products that didn’t last. At a time when many experiencing financial difficulties and are becoming more dependent on electronic devices to communicate with family and friends, this couldn’t be more urgent. The last thing we want to see this Christmas is consumers being ripped off with shoddy products because the government is not doing enough to ensure better design and protect people.”
Libby Peake, head of resource policy, Green Alliance (available for interview)

lpeake@green-alliance.org.uk,  020 7233 7433
Notes for editors
Green Alliance
Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank, focused on ambitious leadership for the environment. With a track record of over 40 years, Green Alliance has worked with the most influential leaders from the NGO, business, academic and political communities. Our work generates new thinking and dialogue, and has increased political action and support for environmental solutions in the UK. www.green-alliance.org.uk 
Circular Economy Task Force
The research is published as part of Green Alliance’s work for the Circular Economy Task Force, a business led a forum for policy, innovation and business thinking on resource use in the UK. The current members include Kingfisher, PwC, SUEZ, Veolia, Viridor and Walgreens Boots Alliance. The analysis and recommendations in this report are solely those of Green Alliance and do not necessarily reflect the views of the experts consulted or the members of the task force.
[1] Design for a circular economy: reducing the impacts of the products we use is available at: www.green-alliance.org.uk/resources/design_for_a_circular_economy.pdf
[2] UN, 2020, Global e-waste monitor
[3] Green Alliance and the Centre for Industrial Energy, Materials and Products (CIEMAP), 2018, By popular demand: what people want from a resource efficient economy
[4] Emissions from producing a typical phone taken from: Belkhir, L. and Elmeligi, A., 2018, “Assessing ICT global emissions footprint: Trends to 2040 & recommendations” in Journal of Cleaner Production177, pp448-463
[5] The research also calculated the impact of producing the estimated 14.2 million phones sold in the UK in 2019, finding they:
  • required mining through ore equal to the weight of nearly 7,300 double decker buses
  • used enough water to fill over 72,000 Olympic sized swimming pools
  • resulted in the same emissions as come from over 664,000 average cars a year.

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