The technological age that we currently find ourselves in has revolutionised just about every aspect of our lives. Technology has opened up our ability to communicate with people on the other side of the world, spread information at record speed and allowed ourselves and the countries we live in to develop. More than half of the global population has access to the internet (4.57 billion) which will only likely increase as poverty rates decline and technology becomes cheaper. As absolutely amazing as that is, it’s creating a huge amount of waste due to the linear economy we find ourselves in.
This electrical waste, as a collective, is called ‘Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment’, or WEEE, and it encompasses almost everything that contains a plug or a battery. That could be anything from a USB stick to a widescreen TV. It can also mean individual components of these electrical products as well: cables, batteries, adapters, etc.
The rapid technological advancement that appears to be happening year-on-year and our constant desire to have the most up-to-date piece of technology often means that we throw things out whilst they’re still in working use. That desire to have the newest ‘thing’ isn’t an issue – it’s human nature – but the way we throw things away into landfill or to be incinerated is the problem.
Around the world, 80-85% of the 20 to 50 million tonnes of WEEE goes to landfill – meaning only 15-20% of the total is recycled. As the availability of information technology spreads across the world, more and more WEEE will be produced in every single country. There are a number of reasons why it’s important to safely recycle and reuse the metals and materials within many of our devices but, perhaps most importantly, is the need for us to transition to a circular economy – something I find myself writing about more and more often.
From the wasting of valuable resources used in the production of electronic and electrical devices, to the environmental importance of keeping WEEE out of landfills and incinerators, we can all do more to increase the circularity of the products we consume. Here’s why we should be doing more, and how we all can do that.
A Waste of Energy and Resources
Creating electronic and electrical devices and products is a highly energy-intensive process. The mining and processing of the metals and the extraction of oil that then becomes plastic are just two examples of where the production process is particularly energy intensive, but we are using huge amounts of energy across the entire process. If these electronic or electrical products are then thrown out into general waste they will either end up in landfill or in an incineration facility (without further waste sorting). Allowing that to happen is a huge waste in resources.
Take copper for example. A metal that is used widely in electronic products, particularly in wiring and cables as well as in motors, is a metal that can easily be recycled. Copper is a finite material, meaning that if we continue to mine it to make products and don’t recycle, we will one day run out of copper which, without an alternate material to use in its place, would be catastrophic for the production of information technology.
However, copper is 100% recyclable without having a detrimental effect on its properties. That basically means that it can be reused again and again and again without issue. Not only that, recycling one tonne of copper uses only 10% of the total energy that is used to extract copper from the mined copper ore. It’s also cheaper to recycle than mine for ore and even after use it can still be worth up to 90% of its original cost. With less mining required for copper there are less gases emitted and less dust produced which, whilst these are mitigated by mining companies, can often have harmful impacts on mining communities and the surrounding environment.
Copper is just one example too. Other non-ferrous metals like nickel, aluminium and lead are also recyclable without effect on its properties. Gold, that is often used in circuitboards for electronic devices, can be recycled. Even more reactive metals like lithium – commonly used in batteries – have huge potential to be recycled at a much higher rate.
It isn’t just the metals though. The plastics and the screens in many of the digital devices can also be recycled. As a product of oil, reducing the amount of virgin plastic we have to create by increasing the amount of recycled plastic available to be used in production will have an important impact on reducing emissions in the electronic sector as well.
Many of the valuable metals and materials used in the production of electrical/electronic items are toxic but in such small quantities that we are unaffected by their use. However, if a device is broken or sent to landfill where parts a broken down, then these toxic materials can leach into soils or nearby water supplies, or even go airborne, where they can cause health complications.
Take your phone for example: in very small amounts, mercury can have toxic effects on the nervous, digestive and immune systems as well as your lungs, skin in eyes if you were to come into contact with it or ingest it – but it’s regularly used in LCD displays. Nickel is also used in some circuit boards within mobile phones, but breathing in particles of the metal can lead to bronchitis, or even lung cancer (although that would likely take prolonged exposure).
These metals are always self-contained within the phone, or any other electronic device, and will likely never cause us any problem without damage to that device or product. However, if they are placed in the general waste then they can often be damaged or broken down during transportation, potentially causing health issues to those transporting waste. If those breakages go unnoticed then those toxins can enter soil and water sources, potentially causing dangerous environmental problems.
Integration into Circular Economy
The whole concept of waste is entirely manmade. Before we started producing things to go to waste, everything was recycled and reused or broke down naturally into the soils. There was a circularity in the way products were made; raw materials were collected, made it into a product, reused and recycled into other products and then allowed to decompose in the soil where the nutrients would help growth of plants and crops.
However, as population around the world grew, product were produced on a mass scale for our own convenience and the use of fossil fuels became widespread in the production of plastics and other synthetic materials, we have ditched this circularity for a more linear economic model where huge amounts of waste are produced.
We’ve lost our way.
We obviously can’t let these synthetic materials break down in the same way that natural products and fibres once did – that could take hundreds of years. But what we can do is build in some circularity into the information technology that is produced so parts can be recycled or repurposed. Electronic and electrical devices can be rebuilt with a much longer future in mind instead of the single use that many are still built for today. Doing so can reduce the amount of waste that ends up in landfill as well as the amount of new metals and materials that are needed, not forgetting the incredible amount of emissions that wouldn’t be released.
Recycling more WEEE and integrating this sector into the circular economy also has the benefit of reducing emissions created by the electronics sector and creating greater employment opportunities with people required to carefully take items apart and recycle the metals and materials into future products.
Getting Rid of WEEE Waste
There are ways for us to recycle those electrical or electronic devices that still work but we no longer use. Phones, laptops, computers, tablets, monitors and some other devices can be given to charities or to schools where they can be reused. If you’d rather get some money then secondhand marketplaces are available or there are a number of companies that will offer you cash to trade in your products that they then recycle for you.
In order to protect the environment from the potentially toxic metals used in many of these products and maximise the recycling from our electrical or electronic devices, it’s vitally important that they’re disposed of correctly. The only way that can be done is at a local recycling facility. From there, WEEE is taken to facilities that can take the device apart and recycle all the resources before being sold back to manufacturers.
There are so many benefits of recycling WEEE waste properly. In a world of finite resources and the crisis that is climate change, doing what we can to conserve resources and recycling what is already in circulation is going to be vital to limiting that. This will also help reduce the amount of waste we produce and how much we are unnecessarily sending to landfill or to be incinerated – further reducing emissions and possibly environmental disaster.
And finally, it’s something we can all easily play our part in.