Why do we produce so much of this kind of waste? What can we do about it? Joining host John Harrison to establish some answers is Ian Williams, Professor of Applied Environmental Science, Centre for Environmental Sciences, Faculty of Engineering and the Environment, University of Southampton.
What is meant by electrical waste or E-Waste?
Ian Williams: Electrical waste, known as E-Waste in most of the world, but known as waste electronic equipment for us in Europe, is basically anything that carries an electrical current, and is used for electrical or electronic purposes, and has been discounted by the user. So it can be both small and large items. Everything from watches to washing machines, vacuum cleaners, toasters, video-cameras, cooling and freezing equipment, mobile phones, tablets, X-Boxes, everything, even the light-bulbs that we generally use now are classified as electrical and electronic equipment because of the way they function and the materials that they contain.
In which countries or areas of the world is this phenomenon of discarding large amounts of electronic waste is the most serious?
Ian Williams: This is most serious in China, and generally Asian and African countries and the reason for this is that large amounts of E-Waste are actually finding their way from the more developed world into the developing world, which is where they are being dismantled, or crude value is being recovered from them, and this is causing their problems. So there is a large transfer, if you like, of this waste-material from the developed to the developing world. China and the United States discarded near a third of the world’s totally waste in 2014. Those are the two biggest countries, but if you want to go to per-head population, the worst are countries such as Norway, Denmark and the United Kingdom which generate the most E-waste per-person per-year.
So this is a one of the major pollution stories of the decade?
Ian Williams: You’re absolutely right. This is definitely one of the most important pollution stories of the decade, and it is happening because of the digital revolution that has taken place over the last fifteen years. Even if you go back to 2010, there were maybe four billion mobile phones subscriptions and now there are more than seven billion. So that means that there are more mobile phone subscriptions than there are people in the world. That’s an extraordinary statistic, and each one of those mobile phones, quite a lot of them are smartphones, at least a billion of them, and contain sixty elements and more than forty metals and have a built-in obsolescence, which means that they run out of usable functioning capacity quite quickly, and then they became waste and then we have these enormous problems that happen afterwards.
Which electronic items take the longest to biodegrade?
Ian Williams: The main problem we have is not the big domestic items, the white goods that you’ve just described, it is high-tech items such as tablets and phones, X-Boxes and so-on, which contain many more metals and potentially toxic elements and these things are very easy just to drop in the bin. A lot of my students, for example, will report that they have five, six or seven, and I even had a student who had thirty mobile phones at the age of 18. That’s extraordinary! And if you ask them why, they will say quite honestly that it has to do with fashion, and wanting to change the colour of their phone, wanting new functionality, and they regularly change their phones every six to twelve months. We did a survey on UK students and they are 2,4 million students, and if you took into account the phones that they have in use, and the ones that they have hoarded, it would be 6,2 million mobile phones.
How long does it take for an iPhone to biodegrade?
Ian Williams: If you dump it by the road, the iPhone wouldn’t biodegrade. There are no biodegradable components in there and most of it is metal, and the rest is plastic. If you dig into an old landfill site, you’ll find things that don’t biodegrade. They will just hang-around. What would happen to a mobile phone if it was done by the formal sector (official recycling sector) is that it will be shredded or dismantled using appropriate methods. And the plastic that was separated out will be taken to a special industrial plant and they will use different methods for separating things out, so the vast majority of materials we want to get out from your mobile phone are raw materials and metals and, at the moment, we are only recycling less than 1% of those, even by using our best technology.