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Your Junk Drawer Full of Small, Unused Electronics is a Big Climate Problem

6 minute read

Think for a minute about your personal electronics. No, not the computer or tablet or smartphone that you are using right now. Think instead about all the DVD players, phones, keyboards, chargers, TV remotes, gaming consoles, and MP3 players that are buried in the darkest corners of your closet or within the impenetrable depths of your overstuffed junk drawers. It’s a decent amount of stuff, right?

These small household electronics could be donated, repaired, or recycled—in theory, their components can be used in new products. But even for people who may know this already, there’s a tendency to hoard so-called “e-waste,” or electronic products that are old, broken, obsolete, or are simply no longer in use. While hoarding a stash of old devices may seem like a harmless quirk, experts say it’s environmentally detrimental because it’s happening on such a large scale.

“It’s really an issue of great concern, this hoarding, and it’s difficult to address because it’s about consumer behavior—why do people behave the way they do?” says Pascal Leroy, director general of the WEEE Forum, a Brussels-based association of global e-waste management organizations. “There is something in us that prevents us from properly disposing of it or properly recycling it.”

Consider, for example, that consumers will stop using roughly 5.3 billion smartphones and mobile phones this year, according to the WEEE Forum. Stacked flat atop one another, the group calculates, these products would rise 120 times higher than the orbit of the International Space Station, or about an eighth of the way to the moon. In a better world, those phones—or their parts—would find a second life. But the reality is that many get trashed or become household dust magnets.

To better understand the extent of e-waste hoarding behavior, WEEE Forum, with support from the United Nations’ Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) Sustainable Cycles Programme, conducted a household survey across six European countries between June and September. The findings indicate that 17%—or about one in six—electronics and electric appliances in European households are no longer used. These items span everything from hair dryers and kitchen gadgets to laptops and GPS navigators.

Drilling deeper, the survey findings indicate that nearly 30% of mobile phones and game consoles in homes today are not in use, along with 20% of TV and video-player equipment and 12% of electric cooking tools. A sample of the hoarding rates for other categories is shown in the chart below.

European hoarding habits are likely similar to those in other developed countries like the U.S., but are probably not a reflection of habits in poorer countries. “Hoarding is happening in richer countries because they own more appliances, so the more you own, the more you’re going to have a [larger] absolute number” of household electronics, says Kees Baldé, senior scientific specialist at UNITAR’s Systainable Cycles. “But also, relatively speaking, you can afford to hoard them.”

Individuals aren’t completely at fault. Governments don’t universally mandate—or facilitate—electronic waste recycling. In the U.S., for instance, only 25 states and the District of Columbia have legislation establishing statewide e-waste recycling programs. And even those disposal programs that do exist in the U.S. are often complicated and cumbersome, varying from item to item and requiring people to deliver to a drop-off point that may not be all that close to their home or place of work.

Companies are culpable, too, as they “make their products in a way that they become waste very [quickly],” says Baldé. “They are not being responsible for the waste they are generating.” It was only just last year that Apple launched a self-service repair program for issues like cracked screens, battery issues, and camera problems; previously, users would pay service charges for such common repairs, though repair services weren’t always available for “vintage” devices that were last on the market seven or more years ago.

Read More: U.S. Plastic Recycling Rates Are Even Worse Than We Thought

Meanwhile, global electronics consumption has continued to grow about 4% a year, creating an ever-growing stream of e-waste that far outpaces the development of e-waste management. According to the most recent e-waste report from UNITAR, only 17.4% of the world’s 110 billion pounds of e-waste generated in 2019 was properly collected and recycled. As a region, Europe clocked the highest e-waste collection and recycling rate at 43%, according to the report, while North and South America came in under 10%.

The WEEE Forum survey offers some insights about why people hoard their gadgets. The most common justification, for 46% of respondents, was that they might use an item again in the future. Other reasons included sentimentality (13%), not knowing how to dispose of it (7%), and worry that it might contain sensitive data (2%). But those percentages may be underestimated, given that the survey allowed only one response.

WEEE Forum’s Leroy says unused electronics, particularly older ones, shouldn’t hang around the house or be dumped in landfills because they can contain toxic chemicals (such as mercury in fluorescent lamps, lead in televisions, and CFCs in fridges). Also, batteries and electronic components typically contain metals and other elements (including palladium, cobalt, and lithium) that could be recycled and used to make new devices—otherwise, these relatively rare elements would need to be newly mined or extracted. Not only are those mining operations damaging to the environment, but they have in the past contributed to geopolitical tensions, and could do so in the future.

“There’s a huge demand for critical raw materials, but the supply is at risk because the supply comes from countries that are either autocracies such as China, or there’s a conflict going on such as Congo, or you have child labor involved,” Leroy says. “We don’t want to mine in Europe, but we want to keep our standard of living. It’s a bit of a contradiction.”

Put quite simply: the less we recycle electronic products, the more we rely on virgin materials that are difficult and dangerous to come by. For gadget hoarders, it may be time to stop procrastinating that closet clean-out, or waiting for e-waste recycling to become easier, and commit to finding recycling centers. But if that’s too big an ask, there’s always the option of keeping every hoarded gadget in use for as long as possible.

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