The forgotten goldmine in your closet: e-waste


How much e-waste you’ve hidden in your closet? A few weekends ago, I decided to have a bit of a tidy-up in my home office.
I filled two bags with general rubbish, unearthed some unwanted books, and I also dug out two old laptop computers.

These had been retired years ago and hadn’t seen the light of day since. They were bulky, heavy and loaded with a version of Windows that was superseded in the summer of 2006!

I also found four old mobile phones (three without chargers), an inoperative digital clock, and an old hard-wired inkjet printer.

I knew that the electronic items were worthless, couldn’t be eBayed, and were destined for the local recycling centre, probably to be landfilled.

Disposing of electrical waste is a huge problem

Disposing of redundant electronic equipment is a global problem that won’t go away any day soon.

Known as e-waste, it includes large appliances, including refrigerators, microwaves, audio equipment and smaller personal electronic devices – even electric toothbrushes.

In a nutshell, anything that operates using electricity!

E-waste is an alarming and growing problem. According to the WEEE Forum, in 2019, we generated 57 million tonnes of e-waste.
Staggeringly, 40% of that consisted of the smaller items such as smartphones, cameras and personal audio equipment.

Photo by Ola Dapo on

If the growth in the disposal of smaller items continues at the same rate as all e-waste, by about 3% per year, then by 2030, we will be throwing out 29 million tonnes globally.

One of the main factors behind the shocking growth in e-waste is the increased ownership of electronic equipment.

Historically, prices for personal electronic devices have fallen in real terms, but they are designed with built-in obsolescence.

Built-in obsolescence is a production strategy whereby the products are manufactured to require periodic replacement or have to be replaced by a new part or software (to shorten their life span).

This means that regular replacement of electronic devices increases ownership by about 3% per year.

Is the high street adding fuel to the fire?

Mobile phone providers encourage regular replacement of phones by offering upgrades to the latest models for modest increases in contract rates.

Thousands of us, therefore, renew perfectly functional phones for no good reasons other than to have the latest model.

According to research conducted by Deloitte, UK consumers bought 1.6 million new devices every month throughout 2021.

You can guess what happened to the obsolete devices…

The EESC estimates there are about 700 million functional yet discarded mobile phones hibernating in drawers across Europe!

We would recover almost 15,000 tonnes of precious and rare metals if we were recycling these hoarded phones.

Sadly, we only recycle 12-15% of the total mobile phones we discard.

It’s not much better in the USA, where Americans throw away 416,00 functional phones daily.

That’s 151 million phones per year going to either landfill or incineration.

Over 40% of the toxic metals, including nickel, cobalt, chromium and lead found in US landfill sites come from electronic waste.

If these discarded devices were dismantled and the materials recovered, we would save about 2,500 tones of precious metals.

To put it into perspective, a tonne of discarded mobile phones contains more gold than a tonne of gold ore!

Recovering these precious metals would also save a huge amount of CO2 being emitted when compared to mining for them.

Here’s a mind-blowing figure for you to consider.

‘In 2019, the high-value recoverable materials in the e-waste generated was worth about US$ 57 billion! Only 17% was collected and recycled, which means that US$ 47.3 billion was burned or dumped – often in developing countries.’

The Global E-Waste Monitor 2020, Page 15. Published by the UN SCYCLE programme:

So, what can I do to help reduce e-waste?

One of the things that stops people from recycling their old electronic equipment is the possibility of compromising their personal data.

My last four phones have all been “smart” phones, probably containing a large amount of sensitive data.

They are all still sitting dismally in my desk drawer.

Even if I were to remove the sim card and reset the phone, there is still an uncomfortable feeling that maybe, just maybe, there is still something in there which could be sensitive.

I recently visited the Apple website and now know how to delete all data from my iPhone.

The Samsung website also has information on deleting personal information from their models.

Now, I will be able to recycle them.

How to help reduce e-waste

  • Maybe you should re-consider automatically upgrading your phone whenever you get that promotional email. Ask yourself, ‘Do I need it?’ ‘Does my current phone still fulfil my requirements?’
  • Keeping your existing phone and moving onto a SIM-only deal will reduce waste and save you money!
  • Trade-in your old smartphone. This way, someone else will buy it, extending its life cycle.
  • Buy second-hand/refurbished devices rather than new ones. The second-hand electronics market is booming. Refurbished devices come with warranties and cost less!

It might be time for you all to sort through your drawers and cupboards. Retrieve that old laptop or ancient desktop computer.

A visit to the gloomiest corner of the loft to rediscover that old monitor?
Have a rummage – you may well find old mobile phones, chargers, old iPads or other tablets.

If you do, there are a many sites in the UK that will recycle them, such as musicMagpie, Compare and Recycle, to name a few.

You could also drop them into a high street charity shop, as several have arrangements to raise funds by recycling old, donated phones.

So… Do you really need that new smartphone?


WEEE_Forum: An international association representing forty-six producer-responsibility organisations across the globe.

EESC: The European Economic and Social Committee – Identifying the impact of the circular economy on the FMCG industry 2019

Daily: According to estimates by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

Other References:

Kees Baldé, Senior Programme Officer of the UN University’s SCYCLE Programme

Deloitte. (2016). Used smartphones: the $17 billion market you may never have
heard of:

Top image by Photo by Tyler Lastovich on Pexels.

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Mark Charlwood - Writer, Journalist and Voice Actor

A highly qualified aviation professional who is able to write cogent and professional articles on a wide variety of subjects. Able to write interesting engaging features and articles concerning sustainability, alternative energy, AI, The Internet of Things, Biotech and ecological technology.

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