Britons throw away nearly half a billion ‘fast tech’ items annually, research shows

The UK threw away nearly half a billion cheap electrical items such as headphones, cables, decorative lights and mini fans in the last year, research has shown.

According to Material Focus, around 471 million ‘fast tech’ items were binned in the past year, with an average cost of around £4 per item.

But while many of the items are perceived to be disposable, even low-cost electricals contain precious materials such as gold, aluminium and lithium, which should be recycled instead of sent to landfill, the campaign group said.

Annual spend on fast tech reportedly passed the £2.8bn mark for the first time in 2023 and there are over 100,000 tonnes of waste electricals thrown away yearly. 

Material Focus said the study has been released in a bid to raise awareness of the issue and encourage people to donate or recycle anything with a plug, battery or cable. 

The research also shows that the UK’s consumption of fast tech is expected to outstrip fast fashion in terms of the amount sent to landfill. Every year, the average UK adult buys nine fast tech items and throws away eight. The items are purchased for a wide range of reasons including replacing a broken item (39 per cent of UK adults) or as a fun novelty (8 per cent). 

Scott Butler, Material Focus executive director, said: “Fast tech is seriously rivalling fast fashion, and is causing similar headaches. People should think carefully about buying some of the more frivolous fast tech items in the first place. 

“But as fast tech items are quite cheap and small, people may not realise that they contain valuable materials and will just pop them in the bin, meaning we lose everything inside them instead of recycling them into something new.

“We want to get the message across that anything with a plug, battery or cable can be recycled and there’s somewhere near you to do it. The scale of the issue is huge, but there’s an easy solution – just as the trend for recycling and repurposing fashion has grown and grown, we want to encourage the nation to recycle fast tech guilt- and fuss-free.”

In 2020, another study found that Britons produce the second largest amount of e-waste per person in Europe behind Norway.

However, the total number of electrical items thrown away has actually decreased since 2017 – down around 34 per cent due to lighter-weight items.

There are also increased efforts to recycle, with some 60 per cent of people saying they regularly recycle their electricals, up from 52 per cent in 2021. 

The government has previously considered rolling out kerbside collections for e-waste nationwide or forcing online retailers to collect it from homes as a way to balance their obligations with those of physical stores.

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