About every year 30,000 tons of electronic waste is illegally shipped out of Britain. Much is destined for developing countries to be melted down by underpaid workers in highly unsafe conditions or to leach toxic materials from landfills.
Another estimated 87,000 tons being tipped off or funneled to illegal dumps in England.
Yet every retailer, municipality and recycling company insists they are doing the right thing with the old technology we entrust to them. So how exactly do our unwanted laptops, monitors and TVs disappear into the dark underworld of the informal waste trade?
The Financial Times decided to find out. We put trackers in old, broken FT laptops – stripped of data – and gave them to the UK’s six leading retailers, who are required by law to take back old goods from customers buying new ones.
Over the next six months, the trackers took us on a curious tour of Britain, stopping at a beach in Norfolk, two residential addresses in Slough and a warehouse in rural Wales.
They opened a window to an industry plagued by an Achilles heel it calls “leakage” – where goods slip through the fingers of formal recyclers into the hands of other potentially questionable actors.
All the retailers promised to “recycle” the laptops, but one of the two we gave to John Lewis was stolen twice from the recycling chain. Meanwhile, Argos sold the two we turned in to an eBay seller.
None of the laptops we monitored were exported illegally, but some slipped into streams that could still go that way.
The UK’s Environment Agency told the FT in response to a freedom of information request that there were multiple ways old technology could find its way onto ships en route for illegal export. Charity stores can give donated electronics alongside unsaleable clothing to textile exporters, or operators of “small industrial units” can send waste to “West African countries,” the agency said.
Another possible route is when electronics returned by customers to retailers as “reasonably suspected to be faulty or damaged and therefore waste” are “bulk auctioned” by either the retailers themselves or companies purchasing from them.
Data obtained through the FoI request suggests that the Environment Agency is ill-equipped to stop such flows as enforcement actions have plummeted in recent years.
A senior officer on the agency’s illegal waste export team said it was a “relatively small team for the magnitude of the problem” and that they were “firefighting.” The officer said criminals target ports they believe the agency does not inspect regularly.
Six months after the deployment of the 14 FT laptops, 10 were found to have been recycled correctly.
Three deployed at Amazon, two at Dell, one at Curry’s and one at John Lewis traveled to authorized recycling plants. The recycling company that received the three laptops we gave to Apple said they were recycled.
The second Curry’s laptop was still at a recycling facility awaiting collection for repair, the retailer said.
Then the tracker went off, meaning it’s unclear where the laptop went next.
“The fact that it happened twice might just be a shame,” Sayers noted, “or it just reiterates the fact that things are leaking.”
Justin Greenaway, commercial manager at Sweeep Kuusakoski, an electronics recycling plant in Kent, said household waste recycling centers are regularly targeted by criminals and “when e-waste is stolen, it is often destined for export”.
Slough Borough Council, which runs the recycling centre, said the trackers’ radius accuracy meant it couldn’t be proven that the laptop entered its location, but “if someone wanted to lift something. . . it can happen without being noticed”.
WasteCare insisted theft from its operations was “rare”, minimized by 24/7 on-site CCTV and cameras in its vehicles, and said it was working to “take additional steps to prevent a recurrence”. John Lewis said the company was reviewing its processes to prevent this from happening again.
According to the UK recycling system, about 114,000 tonnes of electronics are lost to theft each year. a report by Material Focus, a non-profit electrical recycling organization.
Five of the 39 broken computers, monitors and printers the US campaign group made Basel Action Network left at UK recycling centers in 2017, was eventually exported to developing countries. It is almost always illegal to export broken electronics from the UK and Europe, and BAN found that the UK had the worst export rate of 10 European countries tested.
Exporting fully functional electronics is allowed, but many goods that exporters claim are functional are not, and the waste streams of the importing countries, such as Ghana, Nigeria and Pakistan, often lack the capacity to recycle them. Workers at small-scale processing yards are exposed to harmful substances when burning the plastics to access copper and other metals.
BAN reported in an investigation that an adult eating an egg laid by chickens in Ghana’s Agbogbloshie slum, famous for informally processing Europe’s electronic waste, would exceed the European Food Safety Authority’s limits of one particularly toxic substance by 220 times.
British MPs found in a 2020 study that the Environment Agency was not effectively addressing the illegal export of electronic waste. According to FoI data obtained by the FT, the number of port inspections in England for suspected illegal export of electronic waste has fallen almost every year since 2016, from 172 to 33 last year.
The agency made just 14 reports last year to prevent suspected illegal export of electronic waste, up from 50 in 2016, and there have been no prosecutions since 2017. .
The Environment Agency said: “Companies must ensure that electrical waste is transported and treated by the appropriate recycling centers, in accordance with their duty of care, and those who fail to comply may face prosecution.”
A manager who worked for the eBay seller confirmed that they buy returns from various retailers, including Argos, to repair and then resell.
Argos’ website did not indicate that it resells the goods, only stating that the items would be “recycled”. Argos, which is owned by Sainsbury’s, changed the wording after being contacted by the FT, saying: “To help both our customers and the planet, we offer a take-back service. . . In accordance with the waste hierarchy advised by the government, each product is safely recycled, refurbished or resold.”
Scott Butler, executive director of Material Focus, said keeping products working longer is a good thing, “but if retailers say something is recycled, then it should be recycled”.
The owner’s LinkedIn page lists large quantities of TVs, laptops and desktop computers, some for “export”.
Experts who looked at the messages suggested that the items may be too poorly packaged to be intended for reuse abroad, so not all of them may work.
Tes-Amm told the FT it recycled the laptops and discovered the trackers. It said it accidentally added the trackers to a pallet of functioning goods it sold to the exporter, but the exporter sent them back.
The exporter confirmed Tes-Amm’s account, saying their website was “not up to date” and that although they had a license to recycle IT, “we prefer to buy and sell only”.
They added, “We don’t export laptops to any country.” But comments under some LinkedIn posts promoting laptops show that they send price and inventory lists to customers in India, Pakistan and Taiwan. The exporter did not respond to further questions.
On the relationship with the exporter, Tes-Amm said, “There are plenty of functional equipment brokers who are eager to buy our output… For us, they are a rare buyer of refurbished equipment.”
On average, every person in the UK generated 24 kg of electronic waste in 2019.
“Every year the latest cell phones come out, we get a new one and throw the old one out,” says the eBay seller associate who buys from Argos.
It is widely agreed that achieving a fully circular economy is the country’s only hope of fueling its consumption habit while successfully tackling climate change. But at the moment, leakage is one of the main reasons that is still a long way off.
“The environment is crashing faster than we can keep up with,” the eBay seller added. “We are disposable Britain.”
Cards by Steven Bernard