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How e-waste is a hidden cause of climate change

As world leaders met to discuss the issue of unmanaged waste at COP27, Nokia phones wanted to shed light on the problem of e-waste and how to tackle it.

As a group of landscapers were preparing a park in West London for a community space, they stumbled across an old phone. While little is known about the owner, they left a range of artwork on the handset, along with an impressive “snake” score.

The phone and its contents were then displayed to tell a vivid story of a life once lived and people’s personal stories and memories generated from their discarded phones.

This was the first out of ten installations at the Museum of Unnatural History bought to us by Nokia phones to give awareness of growing e-waste – also known as electronic waste.

E-waste includes anything with plugs, cords, and electronic components; common sources include televisions, computers, home appliances and, of course, mobile phones.

Smartphones contribute to 12% of global e-waste, and HMD Global, the home of Nokia phones, wanted to help visualise the level of e-waste that’s being generated and going to the landfill.

Once a phone gets thrown out, it’ll take up to a million years for the glass to decompose, while the plastic and aluminium will take between 200 and 500 years to break down entirely.

All the parts that can be recycled end up going to literal waste.

Smartphones are made up of around 30 elements, including copper, gold and silver and aluminium and plastics, of which 80% can be recycled.

Another installation featured a deconstructed phone to show all the parts that can be reprocessed.

The waste sector generally contributes to 10% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions globally and was a talking point in COP27.

When electronics are improperly disposed of and left in landfills, toxic chemicals are released, affecting the environment.

Dismantling, shredding, or melting the materials releases dust particles or dioxins into the environment, causing air pollution and damaging respiratory health.

Heavy metals like mercury, lithium, lead, barium, and flame retardants can seep directly into and contaminate the soil, affecting any future crops planted near or in the area.

Credit: Unsplash

The metals can also make their way to groundwater, eventually reaching ponds, streams, rivers, and lakes, resulting in acidification and toxification, making it unsafe for animals, plants and communities and causing brain, heart, liver, kidney and skeletal system damage.

And the countries that cause less waste typically suffer the most in some cases.

The final destination for e-waste from all over the world lies in dumps in places like Benin, Ghana and Nigeria. Only 35% of electronics in Europe are collected and recycled, and more than 85% of e-waste imported into Ghana is from the EU.

A large amount is discarded as e-waste after entering the country and abandoned in a scrapyard, with workers making almost £2 or less to salvage copper and other metals within the waste, affecting their health.

OnePoll gathered that young people tend to keep their phones for up to a year less than Gen X and Boomers, with Gen Z keeping their phones for 2.5 years and the latter for 3.1 and 4 years.

To help fight against e-waste, HMD launched Circular, a subscription service for Nokia phones and tablets that rewards users the longer they keep their phone, supports sustainable causes and charities, and ensures old devices are recycled, refurbished, reused or re-subscribed and kept out of landfills.

All possible parts that can be reused will go towards making new devices. In fact, Nokia has actually created two phones made from recycled materials.

The Nokia X30 is built from 100% recycled aluminium frame and a 65% recycled plastic back, their most eco-friendly smartphone yet. While the Nokia G60  is sustainably crafted with a 100% recycled plastic back and 60% recycled plastic frame.

If one million people held onto their Nokia G60 5G for an extra year, they would save the same CO2e needed to power 5,652 homes for a whole year.

Organisations and leaders from around the world met on the 11th of November to raise awareness of and find solutions to unmanaged waste in COP27. But there are many things we can do to keep your phone out of the landfill.

Consider postponing your upgrade for as long as possible, find opportunities to reuse your phone, like giving it to charity or your friends or family, ask the manufacturer if they’ll take back old electronics for credit, or find a local organisation that will recycle your phone for you.

While we need to learn to stray from the temptations of the latest iPhone, the mobile phone industry itself needs to be responsible for the entire lifecycle of their phones, from ensuring they last longer to reusing, refurbishing and recycling while engineering the device.

As the world faces a climate crisis, it’s crucial to keep talking about what’s impacting our world and the people living in it, and with young activists fighting against climate change, it’s important to address how much e-waste Gen Z in the UK produces.