In 2014, the BBC suggested that e-waste might be an untapped treasure after WoeLab created a 3D printer almost entirely from electronic scraps.
And how right they were. Today, e-waste isn’t just being salvaged; it’s being transformed into solar lamps, jewelry, and even life-sized sculptures.
Meanwhile, companies are pleading with customers to hand over their “tech treasure”, as the need to conserve materials and avoid supply chain issues weighs on their minds.
Leading on from this, here’s what brands can do to help change the image of e-waste from trash to gold.
Giving our tech a longer life
In case you missed it in the news, e-waste is the fastest-growing waste stream in the world. And our device catalog keeps on growing, with disposable vapes, e-scooters, and drones being some of the latest gadgets up for grabs.
Since 2018, the number of consumers saying they own 5 or 6+ devices has grown by 22%.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. The performance (and price) of certain electronics has climbed, and there’s a consensus that today’s phones already do everything we want and more – meaning yesterday’s upgrade culture no longer makes sense.
The net result of all this is, even though we own more devices, many of us keep them for longer. This is promising news, as one of the most effective ways to reduce e-waste is to postpone upgrading for as long as possible.
In the last five years, the number who say they’ve had their current mobile for more than 24 months has jumped by 42%, with a larger chunk planning to wait at least 12 months before upgrading their existing one (+11% since 2017).
This is all part of a wider shift in the way we think about electronics. Since 2021, the promise of high quality has become more important to buyers, while attractive packaging and image-based incentives have lost influence. Luxury becomes more discreet when times get hard, and now that devices like smart televisions, laptops, and smartphones are so widespread, they’re less of a status symbol than in the past.
Just 13% of Americans say they upgrade their personal gadgets as soon as they can, with the majority seemingly happy to wait it out.
The takeaway for brands? While shiny new features generate a lot of buzz, consumers tend to base their purchase decisions on factors like durability and battery life – something to consider, as tech marketing campaigns often prioritize a device’s style over its substance.
Today’s relatively long upgrade cycle is a step in the right direction where e-waste is concerned, but only one part of the journey. Another part is nabbing people’s attention and sparking conversations around the issue.
Consumers care, but they need pointing in the right direction
Even though the cost of living crisis is pulling focus from the ongoing climate emergency, many buyers actively want to reduce their carbon footprint.
Around 2 in 5 say they’re most motivated to buy electronic devices made from recycled materials.
Eco-awareness around tech appears to be quite high, but we have to remember that consumers try to reduce their environmental impact in different ways. In order to curb e-waste, people need to return or recycle their used electronics, yet some are looking to “do their bit” solely by buying eco-friendly labels.
Consumers are most likely to describe an “environmentally responsible” gadget as one made from reused materials. By this definition brands like Apple, which is investing in specialist break-down robots, are setting themselves up for success.
Still, the fact that more people think being eco-friendly means buying a product made from sustainably sourced materials than one that can be recycled responsibly could be one of the things preventing a circular tech economy.
56% of those keen to buy recycled tech trade in or sell their old electronics to companies. This number could do with a boost, and it shows that there are knowledge and motivation gaps even among eco-conscious consumers.
So when exploring sustainability angles, tech companies should consider drawing attention to what customers do with their items when they’re finished with them, as well as what they’re made of.
“Sitting on a gold mine?”
We can start to see that people are becoming more mindful about what they do with used tech.
For starters, there’s been a big drop in consumers saying they throw electronic equipment away since 2021, with more choosing to donate them.
But for many who don’t have the headspace to deal with the disposal of their waste right now, stowing old devices away in drawers has become an increasingly popular option. Also, fewer people are finding the time to repair used tech or make arrangements with services that buy or recycle them.
Repairing devices, not letting them accumulate, and selling them are all recommended ways to curb e-waste; and the events of the past year appear to have set these methods back.
Companies can’t mine the precious metals in e-waste if they can’t access it. This means they have to mine the earth much more than they’d otherwise need to, and brands have a lot to gain by spotlighting this.
Made with the help of LADbible, Giffgaff’s “Check Your Drawers” ad gets this information across in a playful tone. What’s interesting is that it doesn’t use the word “e-waste” once, proving that this story can be told in fresh ways. OnePak even argues that “e-waste” could mislead some audiences, as the actual items have real monetary value.
While familiarity with the term increases the chance of people turning over old tech, the number who actually know what it means hasn’t risen by a significant amount since 2021 – sitting at around half of all consumers.
This does vary according to the market and the amount of effort that’s gone into spreading the word. In Germany, 75% understand the term, compared to 19% in the UK. Brands will therefore have to tweak their content strategy depending on the countries they operate in.
Other demographics are also important to keep in mind when crafting e-waste campaigns. Compared to men, women are 15% more likely to say they hold onto electronics, which speaks to their overall relationship with the sector. Of 53 options, technology is men’s number one interest globally, whereas it’s 17th for women, who are 22% less likely to be familiar with e-waste.
Brands now have an opportunity to try new, and hopefully more effective, narratives. It seems that the language currently being used isn’t resonating with certain groups as much as it could. And collecting feedback on ads and better representation could really do a lot of good.
Upgrading takeback and repair schemes
Beyond the language used to discuss e-waste, highlighting financial rewards and the convenience factor will give companies an upper hand. Even if their message is eye-catching, customers want low-effort solutions and to know how getting involved benefits them.
38% say they’d be most motivated to buy tech by discounts for recycling another electronic product they own.
Egypt’s E-Tadweer app ticks these boxes by allowing users to drop old electronics at delivery points in exchange for vouchers that can be used to buy new products, and Currys’ Cash for Trash initiative has seen great success in Britain. Both these projects demonstrate how rewarding takeback programs can be.
Retailers and manufacturers could also benefit from making repairs more straightforward. A smaller number say they’re mending tech than in 2021, but fresh regulations are spurring brands and consumers on.
In line with new rules, Apple now lists repairability scores on its French online store, and 2021 EU legislation requires suppliers to make spare parts available to buyers and third-party companies. Brands offering a good and varied list of repair options stand the best chance of keeping their customers further down the line.
Already, 29% of consumers in 4 countries say the “right to repair” will be very important when choosing their next smartphone.
Luckily for companies, more expect to pay for repairs than get them for free. But a shared expectation is that some or all of the work will be done for them. 43% think the “right to repair” means someone fixing their device at a cost, with 30% saying it’s their right to free repairs. Fewer people think it means buying or receiving parts to mend the device themselves (27%), which hints at where their heads are at.
A number of brands are betting on self-service repair programs, and only time will tell how popular they’ll be. Still, we can be sure that not all customers will feel capable or comfortable getting their hands dirty. It’s likely that repair cafés or services will appeal to a bigger share of customers than DIY repairs.
As we get down to the wire…
Overall, it isn’t essential for audiences to be familiar with the term “e-waste” for positive change to happen.
What is essential is improving awareness around the consequences of throwing out or holding onto old devices, as well as the personal benefits of emptying drawers of redundant tech.
Put simply, brands that keep refining their takeback schemes and the language they use will be the ones with the most tech treasure in years to come.