Kicking the e-waste habit

5 mins read

Of all the ongoing debates around sustainability and carbon emissions, one area that often slips under the radar of public attention is the fast-growing problem of electronic waste - or e-waste.

Credit: Tarun -

Over the past two decades, the rapid advancement of consumer technology has led to a dramatic reduction in the lifespan of our products. Instead of adopting a ‘make-do-and-mend’ approach, we've become accustomed to discarding our electronics at the first sign of flaws or just because a new model has hit the market. This has resulted in e-waste graveyards with significant environmental and health consequences.

Fortunately, organisations are fighting to tackle this problem for good.  Team Repair and The Restart Project are leading this charge, promoting a circular economy in electronics and bridging the educational and skills gap in technology. Their efforts are not just about shifting our habits but about advocating for long-lasting change in the industry, ensuring everyone plays their part in tackling the e-waste problem.

What is the impact of E-waste?

E-waste is a global crisis. The United Nations (UN) reports that a staggering 57 million tonnes of e-waste were produced in 2021, which translates to about 7.6 kg for every person on the planet. Only around 20% of this is formally recycled.  With experts predicting this global output could double to 120 million tonnes by 2050, there is a clear need for immediate and drastic change. 

One significant repercussion of the high turnover of goods is the continuous extraction of rare and finite materials.   The extraction and processing of natural resources contribute to about 50% of global greenhouse gas emissions and over 90% of land and water-related impacts such as biodiversity loss. Many of these materials, including lithium, are used in everyday electronics like iPhones and disposable vapes. By discarding these items recklessly, we are wasting this precious metal at an alarming rate, even though it can be reused in crucial components like electric car batteries.

Another critical issue is the waste itself. The UK is one of the leading contributors to the global e-waste problem, coming in second for the largest production. It is also a significant e-waste exporter, with around 40% of its e-waste being exported to other countries, where it is either dumped in landfills or informally recycled. Such practices have dire consequences on the health of local communities, as harmful toxins like dioxins, lead, and mercury seep from landfills and pollute the soil, food, and water sources.

How can we tackle the problem?

The root causes of the e-waste problem are multifaceted and tackling them will require significant behaviour changes from both individual consumers and the electronics industry.

One major cause is our ‘throw-away’ culture. The disposal attitude towards goods is deeply entrenched in our society, and most people have no idea how these products even work - let alone how to fix them. While skills around repairing clothes and furniture are still passed down through generations, gadget repair education and skills are lacking in every age group.

Shifting this cultural attitude and instilling these skills will be difficult, but it is exactly what two organisations - Team Repair and The Restart Project - are striving to achieve. 

Founded in 2021 by five young engineers from Imperial College London, Team Repair aims to bridge this educational gap by making technology repair education easy, fun, and accessible. The initiative aims to spark children’s curiosity about how things work and instil a more sustainable mindset toward electronic goods in the hope the next generation will break the e-waste cycle.

The initiative involves sending schools faulty electronic gadget kits – such as radios, remote control cars, game consoles, and retro gadgets – with instructions on how to repair them. Once fixed, the items are returned, and the team breaks them again before sending them to the next customer.  This approach is intended to inspire students who might not be engaged with STEM education in the traditional schooling curriculum, increasing interest in STEM while tackling the e-waste crisis.  With support from Innovate UK, the European Union Regional Development Fund and The Institution of Engineering and Technology, the initiative is set to expand significantly, bringing education on STEM and sustainability to a broader community.

The Restart Project was also founded to bridge the educational gap. Based on the principle that repair and reuse should be accessible to everyone, this social enterprise aims to reshape how people think about their electronic goods and empower them with the knowledge to repair them. 

The organisation hosts ‘Repair Events’ where people can bring their products and are supported by experts who teach them how to fix them. Their community approach hopes to build confidence and highlight just how many popular gadgets can be easily repaired with some basic electronic skills. The initiative also has two ‘Fixing Factories’ in London where people can get their gadgets fixed and donate their unused laptops, which are repaired and given to those in the community who need them.  

The initiative also offers more tailored educational services to reach different demographics. One example is a ‘what’s in your mobile phone’ workshop, delivered in high schools, which allows teenagers to take apart a mobile phone and learn about the critical raw materials used to manufacture it.

In addition to the educational side, The Restart Project is also engaged with a broader global campaign: The Right to Repair. As part of their online platform ‘’, the organisation captures all data repair from local repairers and their own events to inform the campaign and identify the key areas in need of change. 

The Right to Repair

The Right to Repair is a global movement of environmental NGOs, social campaigners, and repair businesses that recognise that the e-waste problem is not consumers' fault alone.  On the contrary, it is a problem perpetuated by the electronics industry itself.  

Our modern economies have come to rely on hyper-consumerism, and electronic retailers, manufacturers, and distributors now have a vested interest in the high turnover of gadgets to maintain their business model. This has led to them actively discouraging the repair of their goods by making products difficult to repair and purposely shortening the lifecycle of products – keeping consumers stuck in the throw-away cycle.

The Right to Repair Campaign is dedicated to combatting these practices through legal action and advocacy. Key demands include a ban on intentionally shortening product lifecycle through planned obsolescence or intentionally designing products to prevent repair and giving consumers access to repair manuals and affordable spare parts.  In the EU, for example, the campaign has resulted in a significant piece of upcoming legislation which will instil the obligation on manufacturers and sellers to ensure that consumers can get their products repaired, guarantee the legal right of repaired products by 12 months, and make ‘reasonably’ prices spare parts a requirement.

While the legislation still has gaps, it is an example of how the right-to-repair ethos is making a real impact on everyone.

The Next Steps

Combatting the e-waste problem will require a massive societal shift, and it will not occur overnight. Most importantly, e-waste can’t be tackled by one person or organisation alone - it will require skills training, regulatory efforts, and industry-led change. Learning to collaborate and learn from industry experts and organisations will be a pivotal part of this.

RSDesign Spark has released a new podcast, Mission Responsible, aiming to educate people on the issue and highlight the inspiring organisations at the forefront of this movement.

Author details: Pete Wood, Head of DesignSpark Communities