Why Hoarding Electronics Is So Bad for the Environment

Think for a minute about your personal electronics. No, not the computer or tablet or smartphone that you are using right now. Think instead about all the DVD players, phones, keyboards, chargers, TV remotes, gaming consoles, and MP3 players that are buried in the darkest corners of your closet or within the impenetrable depths of your overstuffed junk drawers. It’s a decent amount of stuff, right?

These small household electronics could be donated, repaired, or recycled—in theory, their components can be used in new products. But even for people who may know this already, there’s a tendency to hoard so-called “e-waste,” or electronic products that are old, broken, obsolete, or are simply no longer in use. While hoarding a stash of old devices may seem like a harmless quirk, experts say it’s environmentally detrimental because it’s happening on such a large scale.

“It’s really an issue of great concern, this hoarding, and it’s difficult to address because it’s about consumer behavior—why do people behave the way they do?” says Pascal Leroy, director general of the WEEE Forum, a Brussels-based association of global e-waste management organizations. “There is something in us that prevents us from properly disposing of it or properly recycling it.”

Consider, for example, that consumers will stop using roughly 5.3 billion smartphones and mobile phones this year, according to the WEEE Forum. Stacked flat atop one another, the group calculates, these products would rise 120 times higher than the orbit of the International Space Station, or about an eighth of the way to the moon. In a better world, those phones—or their parts—would find a second life. But the reality is that many get trashed or become household dust magnets.

To better understand the extent of e-waste hoarding behavior, WEEE Forum, with support from the United Nations’ Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) Sustainable Cycles Programme, conducted a household survey across six European countries between June and September. The findings indicate that 17%—or…