What happens to your old laptop? The growing problem of e-waste

10th January 2020 | Recycling

Monday morning, and a sorry bunch of tangled cables, a broken coffee machine and a single clip-on light is all there is inside the metal crates at Veolia, a noisy recycling depot where residents of the London borough of Southwark drop off broken or unwanted electrical devices. But the week has only just started. Already a family is unloading a van packed to the roof: a standing lamp with a floral shade, a microwave, a hairdryer.


The depot is a gateway to a countrywide recycling process. The family’s discarded items will either be handed over to charities for repair or shredded into parts and recycled, making their way back into the market as components in new electronic items. This facility is one of the biggest of its kind in the UK, and it diverts more than 95 per cent of Southwark’s waste – from more than 140,000 homes – away from landfill. Among its load, the plant processes several hundred tonnes of electronic waste – or e-waste – a year. But on a global scale, very little makes it this far.

E-waste is the fastest-growing element of the world’s domestic waste stream, according to a 2017 report by the UK’s Global E-waste monitor. Some 50m metric tonnes will be produced annually this year – about 7kg for every person in the world. Just 20 per cent will be collected and recycled. The rest is undocumented, meaning it likely ends up in landfill, incinerated, traded illegally or processed in a substandard way. That means hazardous substances spilling into the environment, poisoning the ground and people living nearby.

“Once e-equipment becomes waste, it is hazardous. If you just dumped it in the environment, it would cause a problem,” says Richard Kirkman, chief technology and innovation officer at Veolia. Kirkman has spent the past 20 years working in the waste sector, and has amassed knowledge about seemingly every recycling process out there. But when he started, he says, everything was going to landfill. “Things have got much better [over time].”

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