E-waste: here’s why we’re getting it all wrong

OPINION – This week is International E-Waste Day and once again the focus is on recycling. But we can’t recycle our way out of pollution. Here’s why.

E-waste is the fastest growing waste stream in the world, so it’s no surprise that it now has its own international day on 13 October.

The aim of the day is to raise the public profile of e-waste recycling, including computers, smartphones, washing machines and more. It also aims to encourage consumers to recycle their electronics, according to the group that launched the day, the European association of e-waste systems (WEEE Forum). After all, only 20% of global e-waste is recycled each year – a rate we surely need to improve.

Commenting on the event, EU Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella said: “This is an important and timely initiative because e-waste continues to increase in volume and the materials it contains are essential for manufacturing new products and satisfying consumer demand for e-products.”

He continued: “Even in the EU, which leads the world in e-waste recycling, only 35% of e-waste is officially reported as properly collected and recycled.” 

While efforts to increase recycling sound good, unfortunately they only tell half the story. Recycling can help recover important materials once products can no longer be used, but it also requires additional efforts in terms of resources, energy and investments which could be avoided. Furthermore, much of the e-waste produced in Europe continues to be exported illegally to Africa and Asia, where it is recycled in informal and at times dangerous conditions.

And further complicating recycling is the sheer amount of waste being generated every day. It is estimated that 50 million tonnes of e-waste will be generated globally in 2018 and that this figure is set to increase in the coming years. This is because we’re producing more goods and we’re also discarding them at a much faster rate than ever, even when we could still be using them.

Let’s have a look at today’s smartphones. A broken screen or a weak battery may leave us with no choice but to buy a new phone because companies make repair difficult or too expensive. Sometimes manufacturers even issue software upgrades that may not be compatible with older models.


It’s called planned obsolescence, and it’s a standard practice for some manufacturers. By reducing the lifespan of a product they may drive new sales, but this comes at the expense of the planet and consumers.

The European Commission and the United Nations recognise that the most effective way to reduce waste is to not create it in the first place. Thanks to improved repair and reuse we can save natural resources, the environment and money.

Waste prevention and reuse are Europe’s top two priorities to save resources, while recycling is the third preferred option. However, The current policy agenda remains focused on recycling. We now have – thankfully – higher recycling targets and measures to facilitate the separate collection of waste, but – unfortunately – only few provisions to ensure products are made to last longer and be repaired.

With 80% of the environmental impacts of products determined at design stage, product design can be a game changer in Europe’s quest to reduce waste and transition to a circular economy. Just imagine having minimum durability requirements to only produce smartphone screens that are shock resistant or easily replaceable. And why not ask for standards to ensure all laptops and washing machines placed on the market are easily repairable, in addition to being recyclable and free of toxic chemicals.

EU governments have the opportunity to make this happen this year. An important vote on such requirements is set to take place before the end of the year, but some countries are already expected to reject the proposals and continue business as usual. At stake is not only waste reduction, but also the creation of hundreds of thousands of new jobs in the repair and refurbishing industry as well as massive savings for consumers and businesses.

On International E-Waste Day, that’s what we should be talking about.