Electronics Recycle

By guest writer, Mike. J.

Why bother about electronics recycle?

Electronic waste has become one of the fastest growing rubbish streams in the world. This waste stream includes the commonplace electronic appliances, such as TV sets, monitors and computers. And that is not all – the list also includes mobile phones, printers, scanners, fax machines, fridges and freezers, toasters, vacuum cleaners, hair dryers, many children's toys and so on.

So, if at first it does not seem like there could be much electronic waste to talk about, I’m sure now you will have a better idea about the scale of the electronic waste stream we are creating worldwide. We actually have lots of equipment that, sooner or later, need to be disposed off, and this is why electronics recycle is so important.

In some form or other, all of our electronic devices contain metal and plastic components that can be recycled, and often contain toxic chemicals which need to be disposed of safely. In fact, as a result of this toxicity, most countries will simply not let you dispose of many electrical items in landfills. This toxicity makes electronics recycle a necessity.

Read more about the reasons for recycling old electronic items and computers, as well as tips you can adopt when recycling your old electronic items.

Electronics recycle in countries

The success and efficiency of programs for electronics recycle vary across the different countries and region.

Europe is guided by the Waste Electrical and Electronics Equipment (WEEE) directive which came into force on the 13 February 2003. This directive seeks to reduce electrical landfill and make producers more responsible for the products that they make, including their end of life disposal. Through collection schemes provided for in legislation, end users or consumers no longer have to pay for electronics recycling themselves, but have a responsibility to return items to specified collection points. In turn, producers are then required to bear the cost of collecting and recycling the unwanted electronic items that they had placed on the market.

Nonetheless, despite the presence of the stringent WEEE directive that put in place a legal framework for e-waste recycling, Europe still sent approximately two thirds of recyclable e-waste to landfill. As such, in 2008 the European Commission proposed to revise the directives to increase the amount of e-waste that is sent for recycling, instead of being sent for disposal at the landfills or incinerators. The European Parliament voted in first reading on 3 February 2011.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in America on the other hand has the Resource Conservation Challenge that encourages Americans to recycle as much e-waste as possible. The aims of this initiative include reducing the amount of toxic chemicals used in electronic items, reducing the energy usage by products during their lifetime, reducing production and consumption waste, as well as putting in place infrastructure to allow for the efficient and effective recycling and reusing of electronic items in future.

In America, the EPA predicted that about 2.37 million tons of electronic waste (e.g. TVs, computer sets, computer related products like printers, scanners, keyboards, etc and cell phones, etc) were discarded. Of these, only about 25 per cent were recycled in 2009.

Manufacturer responsibilities in e-waste recycling

As we have briefly seen, many countries are looking to place the costs of electronics recycle and disposal back onto the producers of electronic goods.

This is actually important, because the success of recycling and proper disposal actually starts, not with consumers, but with the product design created by manufacturers. Only products designed for recycling and can be most efficiently and effectively recycled.

If we only seek to increase recycling rates at the consumer end (e.g. by incentivising consumers to recycle), it is not enough – there will be little incentive for manufacturers of electronic products to design recyclable and environmentally friendly appliance products in the first place.

Manufacturers need to experience the cost (in various sense of the word) of producing environmentally unfriendly products, especially at their end-of-life stage or disposal stage, to be motivated to go green when designing their products.

And indeed, regions like Europe have started placing the responsibility where it matters. And to assist manufacturers in their waste collection process, the Green Dot system was introduced. Read more about the Green Dot system in Europe.

Placing the cost of electronics recycle and disposal on manufacturers is likely to encourage them to design products that either last longer, are easily collected and recycled, or use less materials (and hence there is less waste to be collected and recycled), in a bid to cut costs.

Nonetheless, there are some drawbacks to such a policy.

Putting in place policies and legislations for manufacturers to be accountable for the cost of recycling the electronic products they produce takes political will power. Developing countries, especially those that are dependent on overseas manufacturers operating in their land for economic developments, are often constrained to exercise such political will power, for fear that they will drive away foreign investors with increased cost of production.

In countries where the cost of waste electronics recycle and collection is indeed placed on manufacturers, this additional cost may eventually be transferred over to consumers. In other words, consumers may end up paying for that cost of e-waste collection and recycling, instead of manufacturers. The situation may be back at square one.

There is also the issue of enforcement. A piece of legislation would not mean much if it is not actively being enforced.

Challenges in electronics recycle

Besides the difficulties in encouraging green product designs and increasing recycling rates, as discussed above, perhaps the main challenge in the process of electronics recycle is the large variety in the functions and materials making up the items in the e-waste stream.

For example, an average TV contains 6% metal and 50% glass whereas a cooker is 89% metal and only 6% glass, as explained on Wasteonline. It is hence hard for a single recycling facility to handle all the various types of electronic items and their disposal requirements.

Read more about the recycling process for computers.

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