Are Microwaves Bad for the Environment? Yes!

Are microwaves bad for the environment? Well, researchers have found the carbon dioxide emitted from microwave usage across the European Union (EU) alone reaches almost the same as 7 million cars.

Despite microwaves accounting for the largest percentage of sales of all types of ovens, with numbers set to reach nearly 135 million by 2020 in the EU, little has been known about their environmental impacts.

Microwaves account for the largest percentage of sales of all types of ovens.
Microwaves account for the largest percentage of sales of all types of ovens. (Image: By Adrian Pingstone (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
In a first of its kind comprehensive study of the environmental impacts of microwaves, considering their whole life cycle, sheds new light on one of the most used household items in the world.

Findings on microwaves

  • Microwaves emit 7.7 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year in the EU. This is equivalent to the annual emissions of 6.8 million cars.
  • Microwaves across the EU consume an estimated 9.4 terawatt-hours (TWh) of electricity every year. This is equivalent to the annual electricity generated by three large gas power plants.
  • Efforts to reduce consumption should focus on improving consumer awareness and behavior to use appliances more efficiently

The main environmental impacts were the materials used to manufacture the microwaves, the manufacturing process, and the waste management of them after they no longer work. However, the largest impact is its electricity consumption.

According to the authors across the EU, microwave consummation is estimated to be 9.4 terawatt-hours (TWh) of electricity every year; this is equivalent to the annual electricity generation by three large gas power plants.

It was also found that over the lifetime of a microwave (eight years) it would use 573-kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity. To give you an idea of how much that is, you could leave a 7 watt LED light bulb on for nearly nine years to consume the same amount of power.

That’s a lot of power when you consider microwaves spend more than 90 percent of their lifetime being idle in the stand-by mode. The researchers suggest that more focus should be placed on using the appliances more efficiently by improving consumer awareness and behavior.

In this new age of technology, consumers are throwing away electrical and electronic (EE) equipment more than ever before, and due to their relatively low cost and ease of manufacture, microwave waste has become a major issue.

Across the EU in 2005, 184,000 tonnes of waste was generated from discarded microwaves, and it is estimated to rise to 195,000 tonnes by 2025. Dr. Alejandro Gallego-Schmid, from the School of Chemical Engineering & Analytical Science, explains:

A microwave lifespan in the late 90s was from around 10 to 15 years; today it’s between six and eight years. With the shortened lifespan, it has contributed to one of the major contributing factors to the waste problem. Dr. Gallego-Schmid added that:

The authors indicate change is needed and that existing regulations are insufficient to reduce the environmental impacts of microwaves. There need to be new specific regulations for these devices that target their design.

The researchers believe this will help to reduce the amount of resources used to make microwaves and the waste generated at the end of their lifetime.

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  • Troy Oakes

    Troy was born and raised in Australia and has always wanted to know why and how things work, which led him to his love for science. He is a professional photographer and enjoys taking pictures of Australia's beautiful landscapes. He is also a professional storm chaser where he currently lives in Hervey Bay, Australia.