Eden Project, Cornwall — Picture: Nick Fewings

“Just don’t waste”, David Attenborough’s message applies to your washing machine too

Russell Cosway
8 min readJan 13, 2021


We, in the ‘developed world’, are a deeply wasteful bunch. Not only do we overbuy and throw away unused food, overheat or cool our poorly-designed houses and continue to buy and discard single-use plastics, we also have growing serious ‘issues’ with electrical equipment.

“Issues! Issues? What can you mean? I love my technology” I hear you say… and that’s the problem. We love gadgets, time-savers, white goods, computers, phones, TVs, broadband routers, smart speakers, microwaves… oh, I could continue for (p)ages. However, each of these devices has a lifecycle which runs from the point of inception to the ultimate end of being discarded as e-waste.

Electrical and electronic waste, or ‘e-waste’, is becoming a huge problem. It is estimated that in 2020 we saw the worldwide mountain of e-waste get over 50 million tonnes bigger. 50 million tonnes! Can you even imagine what just 1 tonne (1000kg) of technology would look like?

Let’s flex your imagination muscles… with this truck (or lorry)

A big yellow articulated lorry full of 36 tonnes of e-waste
A truck… or lorry — Picture credit: Pixabay, Emslichter

If you can imagine a heavy goods truck, like the one above, passing by on the road, full with things like laptops, TV screens, video game consoles, toasters, washing machines, mobile phones and all their associated paraphernalia.

The first truck trundles by and you look down the road and see a line of lorries all filled with e-waste. You start counting as they pass by at 50 miles per hour, bumper to bumper (wow that’s dangerous). After nearly an hour you get to 4,800 lorries speeding by and lose concentration and pop into a convenient 24-hour coffee place and carry on watching.

However, it’s a long watch. I can’t even imagine how many cups of joe and the number of snacks you’ll get through until it finally comes to an end. However, you stick it out for nearly 12 days to see the last of nearly 14 million lorries pass by.

Now can you imagine the pile to which these trucks have been adding? Probably not. Of course not, this is worldwide, there is no single pile. But where does it all really go?

What are the governments of the world doing about e-waste?

There are 67 countries which have passed laws to deal with the ever-increasing amount of electrical items which are thrown away. These regulations aim to ensure that e-waste is recycled and processed properly. However, it is generally believed that only 20% is actually recycled with the rest just getting dumped, or worse!

That means that 40, of our 50, million tonnes of steel, aluminium, copper, silicon and even precious metals like silver, palladium and gold, are going to landfill. And it gets’ worse, what I haven’t mentioned yet is the dangers of leaving e-waste to breakdown and leech back into the earth.

E-waste is e-dangerous!

The United Nations established the Basel Convention in 1989 to get countries to agree on how they will deal with hazardous waste, which includes e-waste. Yes, e-waste is a danger to health and can damage the environment.

Electronic devices, especially, contain a bewildering range of toxic metals and chemicals. These include lead, cadmium, arsenic, mercury, chromium, and beryllium, to name a few. If you take the metal lead as an example, there is a Chinese e-waste site where the water contained levels of lead 2,400 times higher than safe levels. Many children work at that site.

All these toxic chemicals and metals are entering the soil and rivers which are used to grow food to eat and for water to drink. These poisons can cause birth defects, damage to the nervous systems, severely impact the lungs, livers, and kidneys and, oh yeah, cause death. In the case of a growing child, the risks of getting any of these health problems are greatly increased.

Then there’s the e-charity of developed nations

37 ‘developed’ countries of the world are in a club called the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development — snappy, huh? We’ll call them the OECD. The Basel Convention, I mentioned earlier, has made it illegal to transfer e-waste outside the OECD. However, many of these OECD countries generously donate 2nd hand electrical and electronic devices to the less-developed countries. The trouble is, much of it doesn’t actually work and these nations end up becoming the recipients of our e-waste.

Having said that, these poorer countries do appreciate the value of the components of this e-waste. They breakdown the devices to get the metals. The downside is that they do things like burning the plastic off copper cables, releasing toxic chemicals not just into the earth and water but now also into the air they breathe. And guess what? It’s the children that are working day-in, day-out in this deadly atmosphere.

So, not only are countries poisoning their own people with their e-waste, richer countries are killing the population of poorer nations through fake altruism.

So, is e-waste valuable?

In short, yes. For example, in our 50-million-tonne pile, there are mobile phones with 100 times more gold than the same weight of ore drawn from the mines of the earth! So we’re spending money getting shiny stuff out of gold-ore when we could be raiding the e-waste. Isn’t that mad?

According to the World Economic Forum, the estimated value of the materials in our e-waste dump is $62.5 billion (€55 billion, £50 billion). In fact, if our giant pile of discarded equipment was a country in itself it would be as wealthy as Kenya and richer than 123 other nations of the world.

So, ironically enough, all the things we need to create new gadgets and household devices we all want is in the defunct device you just put in the bin. These leads us to conclude that the developed world is just, well, downright lazy. We’ve always dug stuff out the ground to make devices, perhaps it’s just too difficult to change… or perhaps too costly?

Is cost the only problem?

Money… Profit… Bottom line… this is capitalism at its worse, we cry. Well, yes and no. The problem is more than just getting companies to spend money on using recycled goods. There are fundamental changes that need to be made by all of us.

Going back to the article’s title, in 2019 our most illustrious of the world’s (and I’d better be careful here) naturalists (phew), David Attenborough said, “Just don’t waste”. Simple, easy to quote, but vague on how. Waste doesn’t start at the bin, we need to look back to the very beginning of the creation of a new device, back to the very basis — a need!

But I ‘need’ a new phone

It’s true! Mine is over 5 years old and rapidly approaching a point where the operating system won’t be the latest and safest and the apps I need to do my job will not run on it. I think I’ve done better than most, I used to upgrade annually… latest and greatest for me, and that is still a very common norm.

We live in a rapidly upgrading world. Everything’s getting better, quicker, thinner, lighter, faster and, ooh, so much prettier. That’s our fault! We’ve been convinced by these massive corporations that we need a new phone and 999 of whatever currency you work in is a fair price for such loveliness. Our economy is based on supply and demand — if we demand it, they will supply it — at speed, without full consideration of the consequences and sometimes cheap and nasty.

So, we need to make new demands. Long life, good warranties, serviceable, upgradable, supported, made from recycled materials, easily recycled… you get my point.

“Waste is only waste when I waste it”

On top of that, we need to think “Waste is only waste when I waste it”. Do I need the next upgrade now? Could I put the old but working device to a different use? Could I make this device serviceable for a less demanding user and extend its lifetime? How can I ensure this device gets properly and safely broken down and recycled? You and I have a lot of stuff that was not built with the end in mind which will need to dispose of, eventually.

It can’t be all down to me!

Our individual commitment to changing our demand is key, but the suppliers have work to do too. Businesses literally need to go back to the drawing board. Invention, and subsequent innovation, is the source of everything humans make.

In broad terms, an idea forms in a persons mind to solve a problem. Designs and prototypes are made and products get developed, followed by revisions and tweaks leading to the launch into the marketplace. This all ideally leads to the rewards, usually profit for the people that stomped up the cash. However, that is no longer wholly what’s needed.

Take the car, what an invention! Until the lead in petrol was proved to be poisoning the air we breathe and using up an irreplaceable resource of oil. How about fridges, revolutionised lives, until we found that the gases used for the cooling were ripping a hole in the ozone layer. The list of great inventions which have taken a devastating toll on people and the planet is long and depressing.

It is only recently that inventors, innovators and designers have started to act on the demands coming from their customers, legislators, employees and the planet, and begun considering the full lifetime of the thing they are creating. Can it be built out of recyclable materials? How do we make it easy to service, repair, breakdown and recycle? What would it take to make it last a little longer, or a lot longer? What services need setting-up to provide this long lifetime support?

We all need to be a little more ‘rounded’

Rounded? Maybe circular is a better word. There is a growing movement of organisations which are considering, and moving towards, a Circular Economy. It still serves the traditional supply and demand model but adds the need to reduce our impact on the planet and help us eat into our 50 million tonnes of e-waste we produce, each year.

Suffice to say, if we don’t make a significant change in how we satisfy and control our desires, by 2050 we may be producing 120 million tonnes of e-waste each year… and that’s a lot of caffeine to drink watching that go by!

A bit of homework

Firstly, you should also have a listen to the Green Elephant Show Podcast, where we explain and entertain on this, and other, sustainability subjects.

I’m not going to even attempt to explain the Circular Economy in this article but I’ll leave you with an Infographic from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation which might get you to investigate the subject a little further.

A diagram of the Circular Economy from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation
Credit: Ellen MacArthur Foundation



Russell Cosway

Human, Male, ’60s child and co-founder of the Gydeline Group, which provide sustainability services, products & entertainment via the Green Elephant Show