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How Musicians Can Help Tackle the E-Waste Mountain

E-waste is now a major environmental issue, and one that musicians can no longer ignore. Can using recycled electronics and vintage kit help change things?

Published: 22 January 2021 | 2:34 PM Updated: 28 April 2021 | 4:31 PM

Cables, pedals, mixers, microphones, FX processors, controllers, amps… many people who make, record or perform music will have at least one of the above, probably a few of each, in fact. And, of course, let’s not forget the phone, tablet or computer that everyone needs to function in 21st century western culture.

Society’s insatiable demand for devices is not without its consequences. Electronic waste – e-waste – is, says the UN in a report published in 2019, threatening to become a “tsunami of waste” that will be more damaging to the environment than single-use plastic, harming human health and generating 14% of total carbon emissions, a huge figure and more than half of the total produced by the global transport sector.

E-waste: a growing problem

The UN report, 'A New Circular Vision For Electronics', says that humankind’s consumption of gadgets has created an e-mountain of waste; we produce 50 million tonnes a year, the equivalent of 125,000 jumbo jets. If nothing is done, says the report, “the amount of waste will more than double by 2050, to 120 million tonnes annually”.

E-waste may be a relatively unknown term in the current lexicon of environmental awareness but while it’s not hard to understand what it is, it’s worth digging a bit deeper to understand why it’s such a threat to both the environment and human health.

“The first thing to consider is the raw materials,” says Ben Skidmore, a volunteer for The Restart Project, a charity that helps people learn how to repair their broken electronics, and rethink how they consume them in the first place. “Rare minerals are often mined in conflict regions and with child workers. The production of electronics is also really resource-heavy, using a lot of energy and water.”

As well as base metals, such as copper and tin, and noble metals including silver, gold and platinum, the production of electronics demands the mining of rare-earth metals, such as neodymium, which is used in microphones and speakers.

“People are waking up to the fact that our current levels of resource use and consumption aren’t sustainable,” says Chiara Badiali of Julie’s Bicycle, a charity that supports the creative communities to act on climate change. “That includes all the rare earth and other elements that go into our many technologies and devices, how and where they are mined, the energy used to extract and manufacture them, and the toxins leeching into the environment from electronics that aren’t properly disposed of. E-waste is also a human rights issue. A lot of hazardous e-waste is illegally exported to countries where people dismantling electronics for recycling can be exposed to hazardous chemicals, and recycling facilities can contaminate local soil or water.”

The music industry’s e-waste dilemma

Naomi Pohl, MU Deputy General Secretary, says that musicians are, by the nature of their jobs, likely to be high consumers of electronics: “Many of our members rely on electronic equipment to carry out their roles in the music industry, whether in the creation of music, amplification of a live performance, or for recording and listening purposes,” she says. “Naturally, they will want to dispose of and replace equipment regularly for all sorts of reasons, but primarily because they want to remain at the cutting edge. It is highly likely, therefore, that musicians contribute to the world’s e-waste crisis more than your average office worker.”

Badiali agrees that this is an industry that produces high levels of e-waste. “We do a lot of work to get people in the industry to think about the raw materials – metals, plastics and so on – that are in the instruments and listening devices,” she says.

“A few years ago we ran an ‘e-waste teardown’ with the RSA’s The Great Recovery project. We invited people working in music to take apart turntables, phones, radios and music players and have a look inside to better understand the stuff that ‘powers’ our music-making and listening, and come up with ideas for shifting towards a circular economy. Seeing the sheer number of different screws, plastics and circuit boards coming out of a device is quite eye-opening.”

All e-waste can be recycled

The internet is awash with cheap pedals and amps. The commodification of music hardware has promoted a throwaway culture, adding to the growing mountain of e-waste. “Mass production is getting easier,” says Skidmore. “Firms in Asia produce pedals for about £25. They sell more because they’re cheaper. It’s a circular problem.”

The issue, says Badiali, is as much about shifting a consumerist mindset as it is about recycling. We need to buy less and “ask for policy change to make things longer-lasting and more repairable”. Skidmore agrees that electronics are not designed to be repaired and the situation is exacerbated by a lack of consumer confidence when it comes to taking electronics apart and working out what’s inside. “Anything new produced in a factory contains a circuit board that is put together by a machine, so it can only be repaired if you have a particular set of skills. That’s one barrier, but there’s also the knowledge of what something does. Fewer and fewer people can look at a circuit board and analyse it. Even though someone somewhere designed it, the typical person on the street is simply troubleshooting with a warranty.

While only 20% of e-waste is currently recycled, the good news is that all e-waste can be recycled. The even better news is that it has huge financial value. Of the e-waste currently polluting the earth, the UN says that “the material value alone is worth $62.5 billion (€55 billion), three times more than the annual output of the world’s silver mines and more than the GDP of most countries. There is 100 times more gold in a tonne of mobile phones than in a tonne of gold ore”.

The fiscal argument for recycling gathers even more weight as “harvesting the resources from used electronics produces substantially less carbon dioxide emissions than mining in the Earth’s crust,” says the report. “Working electronic goods and components are worth more than the materials they contain. Therefore, extending the life of products and re-using components brings an even larger economic benefit.”

Re-use your old electronics

Restart takes a multi-pronged approach to raising awareness and changing attitudes to encourage the recycling and reuse of e-waste. As well as lobbying for policy change, it also runs ‘Restart parties’ in pubs and community centres where people can learn how to fix, or at least take apart, their broken electronics. The charity educates through schools and conferences, too. “You want to empower,” says Skidmore. “If you can teach people to fix stuff, that’s great, but we also teach people to have a look, to not be afraid to open things and Google how to fix it, or to try and find someone who does know how to fix it.”

Skidmore believes the music industry is better placed than most to roll out a new attitude towards old electronics. “The strong vein here – at least with guitars and rock‘n’roll,” says Skidmore, “is that old gear has a lot of value – spiritual and cultural as well as financial. There’s always new technology, which becomes old a few years later, but if you buy vintage stuff that’s good value it will always sound good, and it will always be reliable because it’s proved itself. That’s a good culture to encourage.”

“If your electronics still work, try to sell or give them away,” says Badiali, who points out that there is a very vibrant second-hand market for music gear. “Otherwise, dispose of old electronics via accredited WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) collection points – some councils have specific bins in their neighbourhoods, some stores operate takeback schemes, otherwise visit your local recycling centre. Don’t throw electronics in your normal bin.”

The MU is in the process of producing new guidance, which will outline realistic and practical action that can be taken on climate change and to improve environmental sustainability. “We know this is something our members care about and we would encourage them to review their practices with the environment in mind,” says Naomi Pohl.

“A quick internet search will turn up plenty of advice on recycling electronic equipment. You can sell it on, donate it to charity or have it restored for yourself or others. The Union has recently donated its old PCs to a charity, for example. We also recycle everything we can, including old mobile phones and batteries. Tackling the global environmental crisis is of paramount importance and we all want to play our part.”

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