Brits are stockpiling an estimated 40 million old phones and laptops instead of recycling their digital detritus, which contain elements that could run out in the near future.
A survey of 2,353 people by the Royal Society of Chemistry found 51 per cent of UK households have at least one unused electronic device, while 45 per cent have up to five. Of these, 82 per cent have no plans to recycle or sell on their devices after they fall out of use.
However, mobile phones in particular contain "conflict elements" like gold, toxic ones like arsenic and rare elements like indium – used in the manufacture of touchscreens. "Indium is going to run out in 20 years if we carry on using it the way we do," said professor David Cole-Hamilton, vice President of European nonprofit EUChems.
He added that people should refrain from upgrading their phones every two years and go for SIM-only deals instead.
Many conflict elements are mined in areas where fierce battles and child labour are often a routine part of their extraction, the RSC noted.
The body is calling on retailers to introduce take-back schemes, where data is securely wiped and the devices recycled; for manufacturers to build repairability and recyclability into designs; and the government to provide consistent guidelines and infrastructure to facilitate a circular economy.
Robert Parker, CEO of the Royal Society of Chemistry, said: "Chemical scientists are already working to find ground-breaking solutions – by investigating long-term substitutes for rare elements in devices, or by finding new chemical methods to extract precious materials and reuse them – but we all can and must do more.
"As individuals, 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."
In June, the Environmental Audit Committee opened an inquiry into Electronic Waste (e-waste) and the circular economy.
It said the UK produces 24.9kg of e-waste per person, higher than the EU average of 17.7kg. Globally, 44.7 million tonnes of e-waste were produced in 2017, 90 per cent of which was sent to landfill, incinerated, illegally traded or treated in a substandard way.
Mary Creagh MP, chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, said: "Our attitude to e-waste is unsustainable and the need for radical action clear. We will be investigating the UK's e-waste industry and looking at how we can create a circular economy for electronic goods." ®