Children are instrumental to addressing e-waste

The University of Southampton’s Ian D Williams, a member of the UK ISWA National Committee, looks at a new method of public communication about the significant and growing problem of e-waste.

E-waste is one of the fastest growing global waste streams, with an annual growth rate of 3 – 5%. Global WEEE generation is predicted to exceed 75 million tonnes by 2030, astonishingly almost double the 2014 figure.

This gargantuan generation rate is fuelled by rapid turnover of electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) with inbuilt planned obsolescence, including laptops, mobile ‘phones, Information and Communication Technology devices and a wide range of other small consumer electronics such as kitchen and personal care gadgets, children’s toys and Internet of Things devices.

This situation has global ramifications; for example, E-waste in just 13 Latin American countries rose by 49% between 2010 and 2019, but just 3% was collected and safely managed. Given the potentially significant health and environmental consequences of poorly managed e-waste, the frightening fact is that most countries do not have the capacity and capability to handle this waste stream in a safe manner.

Annual E-waste generation in the UK is ~1.5 million tonnes, with less than 40% collected via official channels. This is a huge missed circular economy opportunity. A recent study highlighted that there are at least 17 million small household devices stockpiled/hoarded across the UK with a reuse value of >£571 million. Recovering value from such items is essential to protect human health and the environment and avoid critical resource and economic losses.

Enabling effective management of old or unwanted EEE requires active public engagement, which is often hugely challenging. Many different types of approaches have been trialled, but only slow progress has been achieved. This is partly because scientists habitually experience great difficulties in communicating research findings to the public in an understandable way.

Traditional methods of public communication about waste – consultation papers; community information (posters, leaflets, doorstepping, focus groups); public meetings; workshops & seminars; advisory panels; stalls at fairs / events; mass media campaigns – tend to have narrow, predominantly short-term impacts.

Even very high profile campaigns in the UK – the use of children’s TV characters The Wombles to highlight the problem of littering and WasteWatch’s rapping robot Cycler – did not stop litter and dramatically increase recycling, respectively.

The problem is particularly notable for e-waste because of the immediacy of the issues at stake. To communicate scientific findings in a way that is more accessible to the public, new methods must be explored.

One rarely used method that has previously shown success in the field of waste management is intergenerational influence, where one generation has a positive influence on the behaviour of another.

Back in the day, I worked with environmental charity Wastewatch on the “Taking Home Action on Waste” project. This was the first major attempt to measure the intergenerational influence of an education programme on (recycling) behaviour at home.

Focusing on primary-age children, the project showed that the school-based education programme led to increased household participation in recycling as well as declining levels of residual waste. The method’s influence is exhibited via the work of the UK’s Primary Engineer Programme (an example is the successful development of “The Fun Noisy Bin”) and the BBC’s new educational initiative, “The Regenerators”.

Another rarely utilised approach involves using music and art performances and exhibitions to reach the public. Few research projects have worked with the arts community to enable scientific communication.


Thus I devised the TRACE (TRAnsitioning to a Circular Economy with creative artists) project, a collaboration between scientists, creative artists and primary schoolchildren to develop new ways to communicate research and accelerate its uptake by the public.

The TRACE project aimed to critically analyse and review the capability of intergenerational and creative projects to raise awareness about e-wastes. The project’s objectives were to: i) raise public awareness of the need for sustainable waste management using intergenerational education, ii) to use art and music to portray the socio-economic technical challenges of e-waste management and the potential solutions to this crisis generated by research, and iii) to generate a public discussion about e-waste management).

An artist, musicians and eighty-five primary schoolchildren (supported by their school) worked on the project. The children were from Otterbourne Primary School in Hampshire, England.

The professional artist Susannah Pal was engaged to translate academic research on e-waste into artwork that provoked emotional responses and discussion to inspire action via anthropomorphising it and imbuing it with an organic feel.

The SÓN orchestra, led by Robin Browning, worked with schoolchildren to develop, and produce original musical performances focusing on e-waste. The creative artists involved were guided by scientists to further their own understanding about e-waste generation and solutions to this crisis. It cumulated in two musical performances with an attached art exhibition and another public art exhibition.

Audiences demonstrated strong emotional reactions to the project and there was clear evidence of an intergenerational influence between children and caregivers.

The children and artists successfully took part in a variety of workshops in March 2020 which saw them creating anthropomorphic artwork, putting on performances, taking part in exhibitions and producing a video, a website and a blog. You must watch the video – the hairs will rise on the back of your neck and I promise you will be moved by the words and songs created by the children themselves.

The outcomes were hugely encouraging. Key findings indicate that awareness was raised in audiences, artists, schoolchildren, and their caregivers due to their involvement in the TRACE project; 99% of the audience reported a rise in awareness of e-waste issues; 70% of participants indicated an intention to change e-waste disposal; and 65% indicated an intention to change reuse and repair behaviour.

Audiences demonstrated strong emotional reactions to the project and there was clear evidence of an intergenerational influence between children and caregivers.

I was delighted when the TRACE project scooped an award at the 2021 MRW National Recycling Awards for Campaign of the Year (Large) in December 2021. The judges praised the project for being ‘glorious and innovative, while targeting a very serious issue’.

They said: “It is so different – the idea of bringing different generations together and combining art and music was fascinating. It’s a great example to encourage others to think outside their current way of doing things.”

The project was hard work but huge fun and we learned a lot. The same team is carrying out follow-up projects – with a focus on e-waste and plastic pollution – over the next few months. I look forward to sharing the results in future articles.


TRACE was supported by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council’s Impact Acceleration Account (EPSRC IAA 2017-2020). IAAs are strategic awards provided to institutions to support knowledge exchange and impact from their EPSRC-funded research.

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