Urgent need to increase awareness of e-waste amongst young people, says new report

A new campaign calls for multi-sector collaboration to tackle the e-waste crisis and drive behaviour change amongst young people.

New research published on 12 October highlights an urgent need to increase awareness of the value of the materials in our phones and electrical devices. Despite a growing e-waste crisis, 45% of young people have never recycled a phone. Furthermore, 38% of young people have disposed of their phone in general waste. 

Hubbub and Virgin Media O2’s Time After Time E-waste Report reveals the behaviours and attitudes of Gen Z around e-waste – the fastest growing waste stream in the world1. The report, which includes input from environmental think tank, Green Alliance, saw 3,000 people polled alongside a series of focus groups with 16-26 year-olds and a range of interviews with industry experts.

Only half of the young people surveyed (aged 16-26) trust that electricals get recycled when given to a recycler (51%). The remaining are either unsure (25%) or don’t believe they are recycled (24%). The report recommends that leading industry players build more trust with consumers by communicating authentically on the issue of e-waste and better educating people on how to keep phones in use and when to recycle a device.  

Alongside businesses, manufacturers, retailers, government and local authorities all have a role to play in tackling e-waste and supporting consumers to be more sustainable. This includes making second-hand or refurbished devices more widely accessible and affordable, and making it easier for people to repair their devices so they can be used for longer.

The report also highlights that people are more likely to recycle their devices if they know about the services available and they’re more convenient to access, such as on high streets or via supermarkets.

The survey also reveals 16-26 year olds are the age group most likely to buy a second-hand device, with nearly half having done so already. However, the study found more needs to be done to dispel perceptions around the quality of refurbished devices – such as concerns over battery life and data security and making second-hand tech more desirable. 

Creating change  

Green Alliance has suggested a series of recommendations aimed at government, manufacturers and the tech industry and local authorities to drive change and address e-waste. These include:

· Building repairability into devices

· Mandatory warranties and greater consumer rights to enable customers to keep devices for longer

· Better labelling/information for customers e.g. repairability, recyclability and environmental impact

· Tax changes and fiscal incentives to make actions like repair and purchasing second-hand more financially appealing.

Tackling e-waste 

In response to the nation’s growing e-waste problem, Virgin Media O2 and Hubbub established Community Calling in 2020 to tackle e-waste and digital exclusion, by rehoming used smartphones devices with people in need.

Building on this, Hubbub and Virgin Media O2 Business last week launched the “Tech Donation Programme’ aimed at businesses to help get refurbished devices into the hands of people who need them. 

On top of this, the organisations have launched the £500,000 Time After Time Fund  in 2022 to support innovative projects tackling e-waste and supporting circularity. So far, 10 organisations have received funding to roll out projects which encourage recycling of electronic goods, or support devices being used time after time.

Winners of the fund include a mobile repair bus which collects e-waste in hard-to-reach communities across Cornwall; a training programme in Hull to upskill young people to repair laptops and learn essential digital skills; workshops to teach schoolchildren to repair electrical items in Bristol and repair cafés in universities across the country. The 2023 Time After Time fund is open for applications and charities, community groups and social enterprises can apply here.

Gavin Ellis, Co-Founder of Hubbub said: “With 5.3 billion mobile phones expected to be discarded this year globally and over a third of young people admitting to previously disposing of their phone in the bin, we urgently need to get a grip on the vast amounts of electrical items that are being disposed of incorrectly and ending up in landfill.

“Our research suggests 66% of young people are unaware that smartphones contain precious metals. They also replace their phones more often than any other age group. They’re savvy and keen to do the right thing, but it’s evident they need much more support to do this, including receiving information on the subject in a tone or format that speaks to them. The Time After Time E-waste Report maps out what is required from industry and government to tackle this problem and cross-sector collaboration is absolutely key, so we’re keen to hear from organisations across the industry to explore how we can work together.”

Libby Peake, head of resource policy at Green Alliance, said: “People want the things they own to be long-lasting and repairable, but the UK generates more e-waste than any other country apart from Norway – more than three times the global average. One reason for this contradiction is, as this research shows, it can be difficult and expensive to repair our gadgets or buy them second-hand. That’s something the government could address: ensuring that products are designed with repair in mind, making it clear how easy it is to repair products when they’re sold, and eliminating VAT on spare parts and repair work. We can’t just keep ignoring the problem.”

Dana Haidan, Chief Sustainability Office at Virgin Media O2, said:  

“As one of the UK’s biggest providers of phones, tablets and wearables, Virgin Media O2 is leading the way in providing services to support people to repair, recycle or rehome devices with people in need. 

“But we know there is more to do to tackle the vast problem of e-waste in the UK and that’s why we want to work with the industry and government to support current and future generations to live more sustainably, to drive the circular economy, and to protect the planet.”

Summary of general recommendations in the Time After Time E-waste report 

Harness Gen-Z’s willingness to act and raise awareness by:

· Improving education on e-waste and giving people easy to understand information on why e-waste is a problem.

· Using clearer and more specific terminology when communicating e-waste to the public, e.g. tech, electricals, old phone.

· Communicating authentically to build trust and tackle e-waste together.

Make second-hand or refurbished devices more accessible, affordable and desirable by:

· Increased promotion of the option to buy a refurbished device and the benefits of doing so.

· Reassuring customers of refurbished or second-hand device quality by emphasising warranties/guarantees.

· Myth-busting the experience of buying ‘refurbished’ and tapping into the desire for the unboxing experience.

Help keep phones in use for longer by:

· Social norming the idea of keeping a device for longer and celebrating those who do.

Emphasising better care habits that will keep devices in use for longer.

Encouraging more people to repair could be done by:

· Supporting Gen-Z to repair themselves by providing instructions and guidance.

· Communicating the cost saving benefits of repair over buying new.

At point of sale and in communications with customers, manufacturers and phone providers could encourage passing on devices of old devices by:

· Frequently communicating with customers about the financial, social and environmental benefits of passing on a device.

· Making it easy and accessible to pass on a device.

· Providing guidance about data retrieval and data-wiping.

Manufacturers, phone providers, the government and local authorities all have a role to play in making it easier for people to recycle old, broken devices. This can be done by: 

· Educating people on when and how to recycle a device.

· Improving signposting to existing recycling points

·  Making recycling points local to people and convenient to access, such as on their local high street or at their local supermarket.

·   Providing financial incentives for recycling a device and better advertise the provision of incentives where they already exist, to motivate more people into recycling old devices.

[1] https://globalewaste.org/