Electrical and electronic equipment recycling information sheet
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Many everyday consumer items now contain electronic parts. Every year an estimated 1 million tonnes of waste electronic and electrical equipment (WEEE) are discarded by householders and commercial groups in the UK. Dealing with this waste is an important issue as electronic goods are becoming increasingly short lived, and so ever increasing quantities of obsolete and broken equipment are thrown away. Electronic and electrical equipment makes up on average 4% of European municipal waste, and is growing three times faster than any other municipal waste stream.
Electrical waste includes digital watches, fridges, TVs, computers and toys. Not only is this waste stream disparate in function but in addition the materials of which they are comprised vary considerably. For example an average TV contains 6% metal and 50% glass whereas a cooker is 89% metal and only 6% glass. Other materials used include plastics, ceramics and precious metals. The complex array of product types and materials make waste electrical and electronic equipment difficult to manage.
The main component of waste electronic equipment is large household appliances known as white goods, which make up 43% of the total. The next largest component is IT equipment which accounts for 39%. Much of this is made up of computers, which rapidly become obsolete. Televisions also represent a large proportion, with an estimated 2 million TV sets being discarded each year.
Current tonnages of WEEE collected and recycled in the UK
video / sound
large household appliances
source: ICER 2000
The disposal of electronic and electrical appliances in landfill sites or through incineration creates a number of environmental problems.
Loss of resources
When obsolete materials are not recycled, raw materials have to be processed to make new products. This represents a significant loss of resources as the energy, transport and environmental damage caused by these processes is large.
In 1998 it was estimated that of the 6 million tonnes of electrical equipment waste arising in Europe the potential loss of resources was
2.4 million tonnes of ferrous metal
1.2 million tonnes of plastic
652,000 tonnes of copper
336,000 tonnes of aluminium
336,000 tonnes of glass
This was in addition to the loss of heavy metals, lead, mercury, flame retardants and more. The production of these raw materials and the goods made from them entails environmental damage through mining, transport, water and energy use. For example, according to a recent UN study, the manufacture of a new computer and monitor uses 240kg of fossil fuels, 22kg of chemicals and 1500 litres of water. Similar quantities of materials are used in the manufacture of an average car. The nature of many of these materials is such that they can be recycled with relative ease preventing the waste associated with producing new raw materials.
Damage to the environment and health caused by hazardous materials
Another major problem is the toxic nature of many of the substances, including arsenic, bromine, cadmium, halogenated flame retardant, hydro chlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), lead, mercury and PCBs.
The estimated number of fridges and freezers being disposed in the UK is 3 million units annually. These units contain gases such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) used for the coolant and insulation. Both CFCs and HCFCs are greenhouse gases which when emitted into the atmosphere, contribute to climate change.
Fluorescent lighting contains potentially harmful substances such as highly toxic heavy metals, in particular mercury, cadmium and lead. If they enter the body, these substances can cause damage to the liver, kidneys and the brain. Mercury is also a neurotoxin and has the potential to build up in the food chain. The mercury content is the main concern with fluorescent lighting. A four-foot long fluorescent tube may contain over 30 milligrams of mercury. The EC permissible limit for mercury in drinking water is 1 part per billion, equivalent to 0.001mg a litre.
According to a survey by consultancy ERA Technology, electrical equipment manufacturers are reacting "very slowly" to a legal requirement to remove lead from their products by July 2006, almost 2/3 of companies have no planned date for completing the switch to lead-free technologies.
Finding suitable landfill sites is also becoming an increasing problem, particularly in the South East, where large quantities of electronic waste arise. New rules in force from July 2004 call for the cessation of co-disposal of hazardous and non-hazardous wastes. In the South and South East of England there are currently no landfill sites able to accept hazardous waste.
How's, what's and where's of recycling electrical goods
Reuse schemes and extending product life
Even though a piece of equipment has reached the end of its life in one situation, this does not mean that it is no longer useable. About 25% of discarded appliances are intended for reuse, being donated or sold. In addition to traditional second hand outlets, there are a number of schemes looking at ways of passing on electronic equipment no longer required by commercial organisations to other users. By this means, the life of products can be extended - a more environmentally desirable option than recycling.
Computers and IT Equipment
Since 1996 the market for refurbished computers has increased by 500%, but still less than 20% of all discarded UK computers are recycled. There are commercial organisations that buy and sell business computer systems, either as complete systems, or for refurbishment, or as spares for maintenance purposes. Hewlett Packard offers a take-back service for any make of computer for companies. The type and cost of the service depends on the quantity, type of products returned and the location from where they are picked up. The cost is covered by the customer.
Sales of PCs reached 1.8 million in the second quarter of this year
Two million working Pentium PCs end up in landfill sites in the UK every year
There are also a number of community computer reuse projects in the UK which facilitate the movement of redundant computers from businesses to the community, by addressing the barriers such as legal liability, data protection, and logistics. Computers are typically donated to schools, charities and households or for export to developing countries. If your computer is not of a standard accepted for reuse, refurbishers may take it to reuse the parts. For details of where you can send your computer please see our listing of computer recyclers or call the Wasteline.
Upgrading a particular appliance can also extend the life span of electronic equipment, if the design allows. It is quite standard practice to fit larger hard disks or additional memory to computers. Computer manufacturers now design products that can be easily upgraded, enabling many of the original parts to be retained virtually indefinitely, or at least until they are beyond repair.
The rechargeable battery and other components such as the LCD display have toxic components. Research suggests that there are over 20 million potentially toxic redundant mobile phones in the UK, making up 1-2% of electronic waste, but recycling systems have been slow to catch on because people are reluctant to part with their old phones, believing they may still be worth something. The main channels for disposing of mobiles are the shops that sell them. Fonebak was launched within these stores and collects and donates monies to charities. Many manufacturers have signed up to the Basel Convention agreeing to cooperate with developing environmentally sound management to end-of-life mobile phones.
Action Aid, Oxfam and others (see contacts) collect unwanted mobile phones. The phones are refurbished if possible and sold to eastern European and African countries where the latest technology is not important and where landline infrastructure is poor.
A scheme to reuse mobile phones as personal safety alarms is being promoted by Victim Support Southwark in association with Southwark Borough Council and with the support of T-Mobile. The fones4safety scheme takes old mobiles, reconfigures them to provide one-touch dialling to a 999 operator and distributes them to victims of violent crime.
In 2003, 30-40% of the 40 million inkjet and toner cartridges sold in the UK were remanufactured or recycled, with 12-14,000 tonnes ending up in landfill. Refilling ink jet cartridges is straightforward and can be done on a DIY basis, with a number of companies supplying the ink and refilling equipment. In addition it is also possible to send cartridges away for refilling or to buy refilled cartridges. Many charities and individuals raise money through the collection of used printer cartridges for refilling and resale although increasingly the introduction of smart "killer" chips is hampering this process.
Toner cartridges cannot be refilled, but most types of toner cartridge can be remanufactured. The cartridges are sent to a factory where they are completely dismantled and cleaned, any worn parts are replaced, and the drum either re-coated or replaced. They are then refilled with fresh toner, tested and sold with a guarantee.
A number of fridge recyclers now operate in the UK to dispose safely of fridges that can no longer be used. Two and a half million domestic and about 500,000 commercial fridges are replaced in the UK every year. Studies have found the average lifespan of a fridge to be 11 years. There are over 300 furniture recycling projects across the UK. Furniture projects often need working cookers and fridges, as well as other household items such as vacuum cleaners, to pass on to low-income families for reuse. SOFA, a furniture and electrical appliance reuse charity based in Bristol, helps over 5,000 low-income households a year.
Recycling / recovery
For large household white goods, such as fridges and cookers, recycling infrastructure is strong. However, for smaller more complicated equipment, the development of new infrastructure and technology has become necessary. There are four broad methods employed by industry to recycle
equipment dismantling - the manual separation of reusable and recyclable components
mechanical recycling - the removal of hazardous components followed by granulating and shredding, in order to remove the recyclable raw materials such as plastic and ferrous metal
incineration and refining - metal can be recovered after the more combustible material has been incinerated
chemical recycling - precious metals such as gold and silver can be removed from printed circuit boards and components via chemical processes
Fluorescent tubes and cathode ray tubes (CRTs)
These are made from leaded glass and in addition contain other hazardous materials such as mercury and phosphorus in fluorescent tubes and barium in CRTs.
Some 100 million lighting tubes (about 20,000 tonnes) and 100,000 tonnes of CRT glass are scrapped each year in the UK. Currently these are usually shredded and dumped in landfill sites.
The number of fluorescent tube recyclers in the UK is slowly growing. Mercury Recycling Ltd, based in Manchester, and Lampcare (UK) Recycling Ltd, based in Glasgow, are two companies in the UK with the technology to recycle fluorescent tubes, and are currently taking spent tubes supplied by waste management companies. Sustainalite, part of the Lighting Industry Federation Ltd, aims to promote best practice in the management and resource use of end-of-life gas discharge light sources and to establish and manage an accreditation scheme for those who manage end-of-life gas discharge light sources.
WRAP (the Waste & Resources Action Programme) has produced a first report that aims to identify potential markets for waste CRT glass and to assess the economic and technical barriers to all applications, particularly higher value applications. It will also develop the necessary standards and processes for viable, commercial scale recycling of CRTs.
Collection of household WEEE
At present there are still few places that will accept household electrical equipment for reuse and/or recycling. Under investigation are methods for retailer takeback schemes, kerbside collections and separate storage at civic amenity sites
Three companies involved in wastes management are planning a national scheme for the take-back and recycling of waste electrical and electronic appliances under the name Transform. Biffa will collect from businesses, civic amenity sites and retailers, European Metal Recycling will carry out treatment and recycling of appliances, and Endeva will provide consumer take-back and refurbishment services.
Many not-for-profit organisations have been established to refurbish white goods and computers, providing employment and training as well as passing on these items to schools and other charities at a reduced cost (see contacts for further details).
If you are a householder your waste collection authority (district, borough or unitary council) is obliged to provide a collection service for bulky items like fridges, although they can charge a collection fee. Alternatively, you can take your appliance to your local civic amenity site for disposal free of charge. The staff will ensure that your old appliance is disposed of safely.
What does the law say?
On 13 February 2003, the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE Directive) and a second piece of legislation, the Directive on the Restriction of the Use of Certain Hazardous Substances in Electrical and Electronic Equipment (RoHS) were printed in the EU official journal, and hence came into force in the EU. Member states will have to have incorporated the legislation into their own statute books by 13th August 2004.
The two pieces of legislation will have a profound effect on how we view and treat waste electronics. The WEEE Directive continues the theme of producer responsibility running through recent waste based European legislation. The premise is that those who produce goods should also be held accountable for their disposal. This in essence means that companies manufacturing and importing electrical products are going to be legally and financially responsible for meeting the targets set in the legislation.
The key dates of the Directive are as follows
By 13 August 2005, local authorities must have set up collection or take back schemes which allow users to return their waste products free of charge. Producers need to have financed these collection and disposal routes.
By 31 December 2006, the UK will have to be collecting 4kg of electronic waste per person per year, and meeting several specific recovery and recycling targets .
Legislation affecting refrigeration unit disposal
European Council Regulation no. 2037/2000 on substances that deplete the ozone layer (ODS), which came into effect on 1 October 2000, requires the removal of controlled ODS from refrigeration equipment before such appliances are scrapped. This requirement came into force immediately for industrial and commercial appliances and applied to UK domestic appliances from the 1 January 2002. This applies to ODS in the insulating foam inside the fridge as well as to the refrigerant in the cooling system. Your local council is responsible for the safe disposal of household refrigeration equipment.
What you can do
When buying new electronic or electrical items, choose ones which are durable, and which can be upgraded in the future if possible. Consider first if a current item of equipment can be upgraded, rather than being completely replaced.
If an appliance has stopped working, before discarding it, see if it can be repaired.
In some areas there are projects which take household furniture and basic electrical equipment such as cookers and fridges to pass on to low-income households.
Rather than put unusable small appliances in the bin, take them to your local civic amenity site where they can be added to other scrap for recycling. If you have bulky items to be discarded, contact your council to arrange collection.
If your workplace has computers, mobile phones or toner cartridges which are no longer needed, these can be donated.
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