The pressure to continually upgrade our tech means there’s no such thing as “a device for life” – and that means a hell of a lot of e-waste over the long term.
At the same time eco-consciousness is everywhere, and e-waste is high on the agenda. This year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) is a huge opportunity to address it, with brands, businesses, and governments all having a part to play.
But what about consumers?
Using our Core survey and Zeitgeist data from October 2021 we set out to answer some key questions, including:
- Why has e-waste become such an issue?
- How do consumers feel about e-waste, and how does it affect their behavior?
- Who’s responsible for recycling consumer electronics?
- What’s the role of brands?
Consumers’ love of electronics shows no signs of slowing down
Since 2018, the number of consumers in Europe and North America who own 3 or more devices has continually risen, with similar increases worldwide.
More startling is the 56% increase, over the same period, of people who own 6 or more devices.
There are understandable reasons for this. Global lockdowns in 2020 led to a huge increase in gaming, TV streaming, and widespread working from home, so many consumers found themselves relying on technology – some for the first time.
But we can’t blame everything on the pandemic, as this trend had begun before COVID struck. Instead, our reliance on devices comes from a combination of factors – pandemic included – with growing tech proficiency, device affordability/accessibility, and the Internet of Things all contributing.
As consumers’ device portfolios grow, so does the problem of e-waste. To put it bluntly, there are a lot of old electronics lying around, and too little understanding of what to do about them.
E-waste awareness could be higher
Sustainability and eco-consciousness have become part of today’s consumer mentality. We predicted back in January 2021 just how important these qualities would be, and looking back it’s clear people are increasingly keen to recycle, they know that helping the environment is important, and are willing to pay more for eco-friendly products.
When it comes to e-waste, however, there’s a knowledge gap that makes tackling the problem tricky.
In 9 key markets, more than 8 in 10 consumers have heard the term “e-waste” – but a third don’t know what it means, and 18% aren’t aware of the term.
This is particularly true of older audiences – aged 45 and up – although awareness varies dramatically from country to country as well. China, Germany, and India are the only markets where understanding of e-waste climbs above 50%. In Italy, the UK, and the U.S. less than a third of consumers know what it means.
And while lack of awareness doesn’t necessarily mean consumers don’t care, increasing awareness is the vital first step to making change happen.
Binning the throwaway culture
Internationally, 44% of consumers make the effort to recycle their electronics, but this falls dramatically in countries where awareness of e-waste is lower (down to just 27% in the UK, for example).
31% of consumers still either throw away old electronics with their household garbage, or mix them in with other recyclables like metal and plastic.
The point is that e-waste recycling could easily be much higher, particularly when 58% say they’re aware of specialist recycling centers in their local area.
One way tech brands can help is by rethinking their approach to repairing old devices. A quarter of consumers say they first try to repair products, and making this easier should be a priority. Apple has made big strides in this area by introducing their first self-service repair programme (after a lengthy period of resisting).
As with any eco trend, consciousness-raising is key. Consumers who know about e-waste are more likely to dispose of old electronics properly – but the onus shouldn’t be solely on them to figure out the best way to do it.
Around 4 in 10 consumers agree that local civic authorities should help people recycle old electronics by both providing more information and making it more convenient. This is particularly important while the pandemic continues to hamper peoples’ use of public spaces.
Local businesses can help too. Currently only a handful of consumers trade in old devices or sell them.
But being able to simply drop them off in-store and have someone else take care of disposal should encourage more consumers to stop throwing them out with regular garbage.
A quick online search reveals a number of businesses – big and small – that offer this service, alongside articles that explain to consumers their options for old tech – whether that’s recycling, trading-in for a discount, or donating them to others.
Currently only 19% say they donate their old tech, a figure that’ll hopefully rise as more brands offer this option, with Vodafone and ITV’s “ReBoxing Day” campaign a good example of this in action.
Donating is a way of reducing e-waste and helping those less fortunate. Campaign group Material Focus has partnered with brands like Sky and giffgaff to promote this further, with additional information on e-waste and how businesses can get involved.
What do brands need to know?
Disposing of old electronics in an eco-friendly way is the ultimate goal, although it’s important to note that simply being aware of e-waste can affect consumers’ purchasing decisions too.
35% of consumers check the sustainability of personal electronics before they buy.
That’s more than the number who check their carbon footprint for flights & travel (23%).
Among those who either haven’t heard the term e-waste or don’t know what it means, just 27% check the environmental impact of their tech. The important point is that eco-awareness (of any sort) encourages consumers to think twice about the products they buy, meaning brands need to understand and respond to this mindset.
Consumers who’re aware of the issues surrounding e-waste are understandably far more concerned about tech products being eco-friendly than those who aren’t. In practice this means checking simple things like whether a product has environmentally-friendly packaging or is made from recycled materials – things that brands can very easily take on board.
These consumers are also more likely to purchase new products where they can get a discount for trading in their old devices.
Even though tech is becoming more affordable, consumers will always look for ways to save money – and combating e-waste could be a great win-win incentive.
It’s worth noting how eco-awareness amplifies things that have always been important to consumers. While nothing trumps a product offering good value for money, consumers with e-waste on their minds will be on the lookout for products that are built to last, with long battery life and high build quality high on their list of purchase motivations.
Likewise, consumers who aren’t necessarily concerned about e-waste are still likely to care about helping the environment in some way. Consumers understandably want to feel like they’re part of the solution, not the problem, and by creating products with eco-friendly credentials, brands can explore this as an additional selling point.
Addressing e-waste isn’t a waste of time
Green consumerism has become mainstream, putting immense pressure on brands to produce eco-friendly products, use sustainable packaging, and commit to climate pledges. E-waste, very much a part of the problem, can’t be swept aside any longer.
As consumers buy and use more devices it’s important to make them aware of e-waste and how they can play a role in reducing it.
But while it’s right to encourage consumers to dispose of their old products properly, brands, businesses, and local governments can’t sit idly by. They need to offer easier ways to dispose of old tech, including exchanges or trade-ins, and promote messages that help consumers understand the importance of recycling their electronics.
Device manufacturers need to ask themselves “Are our products built-to-last?” and start using recycled materials to reduce their own e-waste output – both effective ways to win over eco-aware consumers. The fact is that many people actively want to be environmentally responsible, and brands who go the extra mile to help them will set themselves apart from competitors who can’t or won’t do the same.