Today (24 June), campaigners piled electrical waste outside the Scottish Parliament ahead of the final debate on a new Circular Economy law tomorrow. They say MSPs need to do more to improve the way electrical waste is managed and are calling for changes in the final version of the law. 

The circular economy bill is being debated and voted on in the Scottish Parliament this week (Tuesday 25 and Wednesday 26 June). This is the last chance for MSPs to improve the bill. 

The new law should bring in policies to create a circular economy in Scotland where materials are used sustainably and fairly. However, it’s been criticised for its lack of ambition and focus on disposal rather than reduction and reuse of products, which can lead to greater social and environmental benefits. 

Friends of the Earth Scotland are campaigning for the circular economy bill to include a plan for the materials required in the transition away from fossil fuels, many of which are used in consumer electronics too.

Every mobile phone and laptop is powered by precious materials such as lithium, cobalt and copper. Inadequate waste management systems means that these materials are often thrown away rather than being reused or recycled. Less than 1% of lithium is recycled, despite it being required for electric vehicles.

Many of these materials come from mines in the Global South, including Chile, the Philippines and the Democratic Republic of Congo, which exploit local communities, create pollution and increase carbon emissions. The steel used in Scottish wind turbines is likely to include significant amounts of iron ore from Brazil, where there have been two major tailing dam disasters in the last decade. A 2019 disaster in Minas Gerais killed at least 244 people.

Scotland does not have a plan for how to manage these transition minerals. The Scottish Government’s draft Energy Strategy includes plans for electrifying vehicles but fails to consider where the lithium needed to do this will come from.  

Kim Pratt, Circular Economy Campaigner for Friends of the Earth Scotland said:

“The scale of electronic waste in this country is shocking. All of the waste that we’ve gathered today came from simply asking around – most of us have something sitting in a cupboard because we don’t know what to do with it.

“Electrical waste contains precious material which is lost when these items are thrown away. Scotland can’t afford to keep treating electrical products, and the precious materials they contain, as disposable. 

“Reducing our consumption of the materials used to create these products, by increasing reuse and repair, is essential to reduce the harm being done to people and the environment. The new circular economy law also needs to include a plan for these minerals, which are required for our transition away from fossil fuels. If the law does this, it has the potential to have a big impact in creating a fairer and more sustainable future.”

Key facts about e-waste:

  • In the UK, the average person generates 24kg of e-waste every year, that’s the second highest in the world, behind only Norway. The UK is on course to overtake Norway and become the world’s largest contributor to e-waste this year (2024). The global average is 7.3kg.
  • Globally, e-waste has increased 21% in 5 years to over 50 million tonnes. The total value of the raw material dumped annually is estimated to be £46 billion. By 2030, it’s predicted the world will throw away nearly 75 million tonnes of e-waste.
  • Only 17% of e-waste is recycled.
  • There are, on average, 2 mobile phones for every person on the planet. Only 9% are recycled.
  • A typical iPhone is estimated to house around 0.034g of gold, 0.34g of silver, and 0.015g of palladium. It also contains the less valuable but still significant aluminium (25g) and copper (around 15g).
  • One tonne of iPhones would deliver 300 times more gold than a tonne of gold ore and 6.5 times more silver than a tonne of silver ore.