Junk cellphones on Earth would stack higher than the International Space Station

Happy International E-waste Day!

Alongside National Dessert Day, National Boss's Day, and World Egg Day, October 14 is also International E-waste Day. To celebrate, the unfortunately named WEEE Forum (that's waste electrical and electronic equipment) has compiled some grim reading.

The awareness group reckons that of the 16 billion mobile phones owned worldwide, 5.3 billion will become e-waste this year. These devices will either be stashed somewhere out of sight around the home or – worse – tossed in the bin for landfill or incineration.

This is despite their wealth of gold, copper, silver, palladium, and other reclaimable internals.

"Stacked flat atop one another at an average depth of 9mm... many disused phones would rise roughly 50,000km – 120 times higher than the International Space Station; one-eighth of the way to the Moon," the group says.

That's 357,142,857.1429 Linguine to you and I.

According to a survey conducted by WEEE Forum members between June and September 2022, mobile phones were the fourth most hoarded electronic item in European households based on responses from 8,775 people in Portugal, the Netherlands, Italy, Romania, Slovenia, and the UK.

This is behind small consumer electronics like headphones and remote controls, household equipment like clocks and irons, and small IT gear like external hard drives and computer peripherals, but ahead of food preparation equipment.

Of the 74 average total electronic devices in a home, 13 are being hoarded, nine of them unused but working, four broken.

The top reasons for hoarding were "I might use it again" (46 percent), "I plan on selling it" (15 percent), "It has sentimental value" (13 percent), "It might have value in the future" (9 percent), and "I don't know how to dispose of it" (7 percent).

The dumb thing about this is that our homes are now packed with literal goldmines. The demand for rare earth minerals continues to grow unabated, but their supply is not necessarily stable. Often the bulk of worldwide supplies of one element will be mined in one or two countries, and consumers may also have ethical concerns about how they are brought up.

But they can be reclaimed by recycling end-of-life EEE through techniques like hyrdometallurgy (corrosive media treatment) and pyrometallurgy (heat treatment). These have downsides – like the release of carbon dioxide, dioxins, furans, sodium hydroxide, and sulfuric acid – but more sustainable methods, like electrodeposition, are being developed.

The alternative of irresponsibly trashing electronic goods is multiple million tonnes of CO2 equivalents being released into the atmosphere every year and even nastier stuff, like mercury, seeping into the environment.

Magdalena Charytanowicz, who organizes WEEE Forum's International E-Waste Day, said: "In 2022 alone, small EEE items such as cell phones, electric toothbrushes, toasters and cameras produced worldwide will weigh an estimated total of 24.5 million tonnes – four times the weight of the Great Pyramid of Giza. And these small items make up a significant proportion of the 8 percent of all e-waste thrown into trash bins and eventually landfilled or incinerated.

"These devices offer many important resources that can be used in the production of new electronic devices or other equipment, such as wind turbines, electric car batteries or solar panels – all crucial for the green, digital transition to low-carbon societies."

Ernest Doku, telecoms expert at Uswitch.com, commented: "As a nation of hoarders, millions of tech-loving Brits will be adding to the growing problem of e-waste without realizing it.

"Having a backup handset for emergencies or to pass on to a family member makes sense, but some households will have many old devices gathering dust in their drawers.

"The sustainability problem also extends to other devices, our research shows there are 22 million unused Wi-Fi routers cluttering people's homes.

"Hanging onto old mobiles means consumers miss the chance to save money by trading them in and bringing them back into service.

"To help cut back on e-waste, consider doing an early spring clean and make sure unused tech is either reused, resold or disposed of sustainably.

"If changing your handset, consider picking a refurbished model. This will save you money at the same time as reducing the e-waste produced from buying a new smartphone."

In the US, 416,000 cellphones are dumped each day, according to the Public Interest Research Group. Kevin O'Reilly, right-to-repair campaign director at the US non-profit told us in July: "If we were able to extend the lifespan [of phones], on average, by just a year, it would have the carbon-cutting equivalent of taking 636,000 cars off the road."

In the past 20 years, the producer responsibility organizations in the WEEE Forum have collected, de-polluted, recycled or prepared for reuse more than 30 million tonnes of WEEE – again, that's waste electrical and electronic equipment.

Vendors' annual product refresh cycles have been blamed for contributing to this environmental concern yet consumers still look forward to buying a shiny new device every three years.

According to the UN in 2020, 53.6 million tonnes of e-waste was produced in 2019, up 21 percent in five years. ®

 

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