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Global: e-Waste – Recycle or Reuse?

WEEE-Man represents the amount of waste electrical and electronic products that an average UK citizen will throw away in a lifetime

‘WEEE-man’ at London South Bank, by Flickr user polymer808, under Creative Commons Attribution License

Today, numerous households and businesses are constantly creating great amounts of e-waste (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment, or WEEE) and this presents environmental and health threats, as these devices are compiled of toxic substances.

According to StEP (Solving the e-Waste Problem),

E-waste is a term used to cover almost all types of electrical and electronic equipment that has or could enter the waste stream. Although e-waste is a general term, it can be often considered to cover TV’s, computers, mobile phones, white goods (fridges, washing machines, dryers etc.), home entertainment and stereo systems, toys, toasters, kettles – almost any household or business item with circuitry or electrical components with power or battery supply.

Rapid product innovations and replacement, especially in ICT and office equipment, combined with the lower prices for many electrical goods, are escalating the problem with e-waste.

e-Waste management can be divided into reuse or recycling of the old equipment.

Tony Roberts highlights the magnitude of the problem on his blog, Laptop Burns. He writes:

[…] We are creating a toxic time-bomb of over 20 billion items of eWaste that demands our urgent attention. The UN estimates that in 2009 that there were 4.6 billion mobile phones in use worldwide (http://bit.ly/qtwGU). According to World Bank World Development Indicators there were 2.6 billion radios in use in 2005 (http://bit.ly/1KW5U6) and 2 billion TVs (http://bit.ly/1KW5U6). Gartner Research shows that there are now over 1 billion computers in use worldwide (http://bit.ly/uxy68). These volumes are rising rapidly: we now produce and consume over 1 billion additional mobile phones every year. The size of this problem is unprecedented.

[…]

Fortunately there is no mystery about how to end eWaste. We must reduce the carbon footprint of mining and manufacture and reduce the toxics used in the production of EEE. We must agree a common policy framework internationally to promote reuse of working EEE, and recycle all of our own WEEE as well as outlawing the dumping and export of eWaste. And we must enforce the Polluter Pays Principle.

Haley Bowcock discusses reusing old equipment as an alternative to recycling:

[…] There is huge scope for reusing unwanted ICTs, as they are often replaced long before the end of their productive lives, due to rapid product innovation and consumer desires for the latest model. Unwanted ICTs, however, often end up in landfill or enter recycling chains. While there are environmental and human health benefits to safely the recycling end-of-life electronics, these are less pronounced for unwanted ICTs that are yet to reach the end of their productive lives. In fact, empirical research has indicated that reusing a computer is up to 20 times more energy efficient than recycling it.

So, reuse should be promoted and where shown to be the most beneficial waste management option, like with ICT equipment and many other unwanted consumer items, maximised. Fortunately, there are recent developments that suggest reuse may be getting the recognition it deserves. […]

She also links to a special report, Why Reuse is Better Than Recycling, by Computer Aid International, which lists several key findings and recommendations:

Key findings:

  • ICT production is energy and material intensive, and ICTs contain substances that are hazardous, valuable or both, so keeping them out of landfill makes clear sense
  • High levels of product replacement and the concentration of energy intensity in the ICT production rather than use phase (80 and 20 percent, respectively) means that any activity that extends the life of ICTs–such as reuse–should be prioritised
  • Reusing working computers is up to 20 times more energy efficient than recycling them. Also, reuse has lower resource depletion costs than recycling. Thus, the waste hierarchy, which has reuse as more environmentally beneficial than recycling, equally applies to unwanted ICTs as to other wastes
  • While ICTs are often replaced long before the end of their productive lives, their reuse brings additional benefits, such as providing access to those unable to afford them new
  • The superior performance of reuse has been recognised in EU legislation. The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive contains language that prioritises reuse, though a lack of specific reuse targets means that recycling often becomes the practical reality. More needs to be done in the EU and elsewhere to reap the many benefits of reuse

Recommendations:
To realise the many benefits of reuse, various stakeholders involved in the management of end-of-life ICTs (and other e-wastes) need to ensure the following:

  • Producers need to reduce waste and environmental pollution by designing reuse into their products. Resulting products would have clear upgrade paths and could be easily taken apart for repair and recycling. Too many products have obsolescence designed in. Product instructions should promote reuse over recycling.
  • Consumers need to maximise product life by postponing replacement until equipment has reached the genuine end of its productive life. Consumers can prioritise reuse over recycling by donating working equipment for reuse and only recycling equipment when it has genuinely reached the end of its productive life.
  • Governments need to introduce targets and standards for reuse and monitor their attainment. Public education about the waste hierarchy and the environmental importance of prioritising reuse over recycling would be a valuable contribution as would mandating the segregation of reusable equipment at waste collection sites.

In the post titled Where Do I Recycle My Old Electronics?, on the Sustainable Electronics Initiative blog, Aida Sefic Williams published a link to Electronic Take-Back and Donation Programs, and gave links to the websites where those who want to recycle could erase personal information from cell phones and computers.

What do you do with your old equipment?

3 comments

  • It is urgent that the industrialized countries put in place the necessary checks and balances or systems to curb the increasing illicit shipments of electronic waste from their countries and their subsequent dumping in Ghana and other countries lest developing countries continue to wallow in environmental decline, ill-health and increasing poverty.

    Everyone has the right to live in a world free from toxic pollution and environmental degradation. Please see this page below for more information on the e-waste situation in Ghana

    http://www.facebook.com/pages/E-Waste-Watch-Ghana/128902477153239?created

  • great wonderful post, elena! last week my 5-year old mac ibook was about to die, so i went to a “mac-restore” place here in santa fe (new mexico, USA) and they re-used its good parts to assemble what is essentially a reincarnation of my original laptop, it works just fine…this is the general approach i have with all electronics (and other stuff as well), and encourage everybody to do the same ;)

  • To help students become more aware of the need to ecycle, our website, http://www.teachit-now.org, has made ecycling information available, as well as a lesson plan on the subject. Students do research and then put a flyer together to teach their community about the need to ecycle and explains how to do it. I encourage you to pass this information along to any schools.

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