Microwaves pose major environmental threat

12 February 2018 | updated 12 February 2018

New research from the University of Manchester shows that microwave usage across the EU alone emits as much carbon dioxide as nearly seven million cars and consumes as much electricity as is generated by three large gas power plants each year.

Researchers at the University of Manchester have carried out the first-ever comprehensive study on the environmental impacts of microwaves over their entire life cycle, or what is known as ‘from cradle to grave’. And their results are grim.

7.7 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent

Altogether, the research team investigated 12 different environmental factors, including climate change, depletion of natural resources and ecological toxicity. They found, for example, that the microwaves used across the EU emit 7.7 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year. This is equivalent to the annual emission of 6.8 million cars.

The research shows that the main environmental ‘hotspots’ are materials used to manufacture the microwaves, the manufacturing process and end-of-life waste management. For example, the manufacturing process alone contributes more than 20 per cent to depletion of natural resources and to climate change.

Massive electricity consumption

However, it is electricity consumption by microwaves that has the biggest impact on the environment, taking into account its whole life cycle, from production of fuels to generation of electricity. In total, microwaves across the EU consume an estimated 9.4 terawatt-hours (TWh) of electricity every year. This is equivalent to the annual electricity generation by three large gas power plants.

The study found that, on average, an individual microwave uses 573 kilowatt hour (kWh) of electricity over its lifetime of eight years. That is equivalent to the electricity consumed by a 7 watt LED light bulb, left on continuously for almost nine years. This is despite the fact that microwaves spend more than 90 per cent of their lifetime being idle, in the stand-by mode.

The study’s authors suggest that efforts to reduce consumption should focus on improving consumer awareness and behaviour to use appliances more efficiently. For example, electricity consumption by microwaves can be reduced by adjusting the time of cooking to the type of food.

Consumption mentality a major problem

Waste is another major problem. Due to their relative low cost and ease of manufacture, consumers are throwing more electrical and electronic (EE) equipment away than ever before, including microwaves.

In 2005, across the EU, 184,000 tonnes of EE waste was generated from discarded microwaves. By 2025 this is estimated to rise to 195,000 tonnes, or 16 million individual units being sent for disposal.

“Rapid technological developments and falling prices are driving the purchase of electrical and electronic appliances in Europe,” explained Dr Alejandro Gallego-Schmid from the university.

“Consumers now tend to buy new appliances before the existing ones reach the end of their useful life as electronic goods have become fashionable and ‘status’ items. As a result, discarded electrical equipment, such as microwaves, is one of the fastest growing waste streams worldwide.”

Reduced lifespan

Another major contributing factor to the waste is a reduced lifespan of microwaves. It is now nearly seven years shorter than it was almost 20 years ago. Research shows that a microwave’s life cycle has decreased from around 10 to 15 years in the late 90s to between six to eight years today.

Dr Gallego-Schmid added: “Given that microwaves account for the largest percentage of sales of all type of ovens in the EU, it is increasingly important to start addressing their impact on resource use and end-of-life waste.”

The study also shows that existing regulation will not be sufficient to reduce the environmental impacts of microwaves. It recommends that it will be necessary to develop specific regulations for these devices targeting their design in an effort to reduce the amount of resources used to make microwaves and waste generated at the end of their lifetime.