Saturday, 21 September 2019

Hoarding electrical stuff harms the environment.

Do you have a drawer full of old mobile phones and other electrical/electronic stuff? If so, why haven’t you recycled them? Hoarding damages the environment.

I was pleasantly surprised that Apple actually paid me £94 for my old Mac Mini when I bought a new one a few months ago. However even without a financial incentive it is good to recycle. It helps the circular economy - otherwise there is nothing for it to work on.

The monetary value of the materials reclaimed during recycling a phone is small. My beloved has pointed me at data from Apple about their recycling of iPhones [1]. The bulk of the material recovered is steel or aluminium which is cheap but easy to recycle. There are also small amounts of gold, silver, tungsten, copper, tin, cobalt and some rare earths. The quantities are such that the total value of this stuff is about £1. If the materials were valuable then Apple (and others) would be recycling it anyway, without any regulations or consumer pressure.

Unfortunately, the monetary value of these materials excludes the environmental cost of extraction and disposal. Blowing up mountains to mine metals is cheap to do but does a lot of damage. Finding new spaces for landfill when the old ones are full is a real headache because there is a long list of environmental and social conditions they have to fulfil.

Also, even though most of these metals are currently plentiful, that may not always be the case. As we move on from the easy sources to the less convenient ones the environmental costs of extracting get higher. Ultimately our old landfill sites will be valuable for the materials they contain that we have discarded over decades. However, it would be a lot more efficient and less damaging to collect up the material when it becomes available rather than carefully burying it and then digging it up and refining it again later.

So are you a hoarder? Judging by the statistics, lots of us are [2]. Recycling targets are being missed, which means fines for the producers – 2017 was a bad year for recycling and fines (in the UK) totalled £8 million [3]. You might think this is a good thing but actually recycling would be better. Don’t give the producers any excuses!  The targets take into account voluntary recycling (like me sending my Mac Mini back to Apple) as well as material taken to household recycling centres.

Reasons given for not recycling [2] include:

  • Concerns over data security
  • Not knowing where items can be recycled, or not being convenient.

If security is your worry, there is good advice available on how to wipe data off your phone. Anyway, the only way to keep  your data safe is to encrypt it (which I would recommend). What if you lose your phone accidentally or if you get burgled? A house breaker will not find your current phone because it is in your pocket but they might take your old phones lying in a drawer.

If your problem is finding out what to do to recycle, I have some sympathy. As far as I can tell, there are only a few recycling points around Cambridge that take WEEE – the nearest is in Trumpington.  However it is worth checking what the manufacturer offers for your particular item. Your device is worth more to them than the council because they are in a better position to make good use of the bits. My current phone is a Motorola  - and I see I can just put it in an envelope and send it freepost.  There are also many charities that take used phones. For larger options, there are other options. I see Cambridge Computer Recycling takes stuff for free.

So, try not to hoard stuff unless you really are likely to use it. Your waste is more valuable to others than to you. We can’t complain about manufacturers not handling waste properly if we don’t even give it to them. Hoarding damages the environment.

[1] Materials stripped from recycled iPhones are being used in new Apple products (inewsletter) April 2019

[2] Study hints at ‘hoarding’ of WEEE by householders (Lets Recycle) Aug 2019


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