• Royal Society of Chemistry research suggests that there are 40 million unused devices gathering dust in the UK alone
    • Each of these devices contains increasingly rare elements that must be mined from finite natural sources
    • CEO Robert Parker says some elements are ‘approaching the point of no return’
    • Findings prompt calls for action from government, manufacturers and retailers

    A circular tech economy must be a national priority if consumers are to continue enjoying technology that relies on increasingly rare materials, according to the Royal Society of Chemistry.

    Many of us won’t have heard of indium, yttrium or tantalum, but each of our mobile phones, tablets and computers depend on them to perform crucial functions. They are also incredibly rare – with natural sources set to run out within the next 100 years. Other rare elements are also vital to all our electronic devices, from computers to MP3 players to smart TVs.

    As mobile phone users excitedly await the completion of the new 5G network, which would require new phones, Royal Society of Chemistry research reveals 82% of UK households with unused devices – including mobile phones, computers, smart TVs, MP3 players or e-readers – have no plans to recycle them after they fall out of use, with two thirds (66%) set to store such devices indefinitely as a spare. Only 18% will aim to recycle this technology, and just 14% are planning to sell their redundant devices on.

    And the problem could be set to grow, with young people owning more items of technology than anyone else, with 52% of 16–24 year olds having 10 or more gadgets in their home. By comparison, 39% of 35–44 year olds have 10 or more devices, as do 30% of 55–75 year olds.

    The findings come as part of International Year of the Periodic Table and after the increasing scarcity of some of some of the naturally occurring elements used in phones was highlighted by the European Chemical Society (EuChemS) – with neodymium, yttrium and indium among those in increasingly short supply.

    Robert Parker, CEO of the Royal Society of Chemistry said: “Chemical scientists are already working to find ground-breaking solutions – by investigating long-term substitutes for rare elements in devices, or by finding new chemical methods to extract precious materials and reuse them – but we all can and must do more. Chemical solutions to these challenges may still be decades away, and in the meantime we are approaching the point of no return for some of these materials, whose special properties make them uniquely suited for use in the technology we rely on in healthcare, in doing business and in our homes.

    “As individuals, reuse and recycling are the best options available to us, but even if recycled it is still extremely difficult to recover some of these elements from unused devices. We need action now – from governments, manufacturers and retailers – to make reuse and recycling much easier, and we must enable a new generation of chemistry talent to help. The UK has a tremendous opportunity to become a world leader in this and set an example for other nations to follow.”

    At a recent Royal Society of Chemistry workshop on Mitigating Future Wastes, experts recommended that retailers and others introduce take-back schemes for commonly upgraded devices such as mobile phones, tablets and laptops, and that manufacturers build devices in such a way that people can completely remove their data when they recycle them.

    Also, eco-design principles need to be built in to devices, so they last and the critical raw materials can be recovered from them at the end of their useful lives. The Royal Society of Chemistry is carrying out further research to determine further recommendations for improving device recycling.

    “Over our lifetime, one person in the UK will produce around three tonnes of electronic waste. However, there are indications that number could grow as the number of smart, wireless or connected devices in the home increase,” Robert continued.

    “As a society, we are all too aware of the need for sustainable practices in food production and land use – just think about plastic straws and coffee cups to see how quickly things can change. While work is progressing on finding new novel materials for technology, there is no better time than during the International Year of the Periodic Table to start thinking about adopting sustainable tech now to prevent global shortages.”

    In compiling the study, the Royal Society of Chemistry surveyed an online sample of 2,353 people, revealing that 51% of UK households have at least one unused electronic device and 45% up to five. When asked why they don’t recycle old devices, more than one in three (37%) of those with unused devices at home said data and security fears made them uneasy, while almost a third (29%) also said they didn’t know where to go to recycle old tech.

    Mobile devices contain conflict elements like gold, toxic ones like arsenic and rare elements like indium, which could run out in less than 50 years if we carry on as we are. More than half of people (59%) said knowing this would make them more likely to recycle old devices.

    ‘Conflict elements’ also include tin, tantalum and tungsten, and are mined in areas where fierce battles and child labour are often a routine part of their mining.

    Dr David Greenfield runs a pop-up technology recycling service for residents called TechTakeBack, which securely erases data from old devices before recycling or reusing them. Many of the devices are donated to charities for use by the homeless or refugees, or dismantled for material harvesting.

    He said: “Devices aren’t being manufactured in such a way that they are easy to recycle, and manufacturers need to do better. They are using custom screws and special glue that makes them hard to reprocess.

    “Lots of the currently used processes for recovering the precious metals are chemical-heavy and not very environmentally friendly, for example using acids – so while we need to do better at using these materials and devising synthetics, we also need to think of chemistry solutions for extracting materials in a reusable way.”

    The Royal Society of Chemistry is already working closely with research chemists and industry to develop solutions and communicate recommendations to policymakers.

    Key findings from the survey
    51% of UK households have at least one unused electronic device at home
    45% have between two and five
    25% have an unused laptop
    23% have a mobile phone
    Of households with unused electronic devices at home…
    69% intend to store them as a spare
    18% intend to recycle them
    14% intend to sell them on
    Of those who don’t recycle electronic devices…
    37% said they were worried about data and security
    29% said they didn’t know where to go to recycle old tech
    59% said that knowing that some elements in mobile devices contained conflict elements, toxic ones, and rare elements would make them more likely to recycle
    52% of 16–24 year olds have 10 or more electronic devices in their home
    39% of 35-44 year olds have 10 or more devices
    30% of 55-75 year olds have 10 or more devices
    Research was carried out by Ipsos MORI on behalf of the Royal Society of Chemistry. It surveyed a nationally representative quota sample of 2353 adults in the United Kingdom aged 16-75 using its online I: Omnibus between 18-22 January 2019. Data has been weighted to the known offline population proportions for age within gender, government office region, working status and social grade.

    For information on how to recycle old technology in the home, including an interactive guide on where you can recycle goods in your area visithttps://www.recyclenow.com/dont-bin-it-bring-it.

    For more information, visit https://www.rsc.org/campaigning-outreach/campaigning/saving-precious-elements/elements-in-danger/

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