Materials

International E-Waste Day urges reuse of electronics

This year’s International E-Waste Day, households, businesses and governments are being called on to send off used plug-in and battery-operated products for reuse.

Experts and producer responsibility organisations are promoting the use of facilities in which discarded electricals can either be repaired or recycled, with the latter seeing the recovery of valuable materials in the form of precious metals.

E-wasteThis comes after research from the WEEE (Waste Electronic and Electrical Equipment) Forum found that 17.4 per cent of e-waste was known to be properly treated and recycled in 2019, in spite of public estimates sitting at around 40 - 50 per cent. In the case of small information technology products – including mobile phones, tablets and computers – many factors are thought to discourage recycling, including data security; difficult-to-reach return points; product value; and uncertainty about appropriate recycling.

The total amount of WEEE accumulated in 2021 is estimated to amount to 57.4 million tonnes, jumping 3.8 million tonnes from the figure generated in 2019. The WEEE Forum has assessed that rates of global e-waste generation are set to grow annually by three to four per cent, attributing the rise to higher consumption rates of electronics; limited repair options; and shorter product lifecycles.

11 out of 72 items of electronics within the average household are either no longer in use or not working, according to estimates within Europe. Another 4 - 5 kg of WEEE is hoarded by each European citizen, before being discarded, as stated in the study. Discarded large appliances – including stoves and refrigerators – comprise the largest component of e-waste by weight.

The issue of e-waste is an international one – even within the EU, which has had comprehensive Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) legislation in place for two decades. Whilst progress has been made, member states are still struggling to achieve targets, as documented by the WEEE Flows study and vision report, with the EU formal WEEE collection rate situated at 55 per cent in 2018.

Going forward, according to a report conducted jointly by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and the WEEE Forum, digitalisation is needed in order to foster economic circularity. It also states that product manufacturers have a significant role to play, alongside that of consumers.

According to the report: “Fast mobile phone development has led to a market dependency on rapid replacement of older devices. Mobile devices affect the environment in many ways over their lifetimes, but the impact can be reduced and spread over a longer period by applying circular economy principles, including production control, device reuse, remanufacture and recycling, and improved circular design involving component material selection, standardization and modularization for easier disassembly.”

Pascal Leroy, Director General of the WEEE Forum, commented: “Many factors play a role in making the electrical and electronics sector resource-efficient and circular. For example, our member producer responsibility organisations collected and secured responsible recycling of 2.8 Mt of e-waste in 2020.  But one thing stands out: as long as citizens don’t return their used, broken gear, sell it, or donate it, we will need to continue mining all-new materials causing great environmental damage.”

“This year’s focus for International E-Waste Day is the crucial role each of us has in making circularity a reality for e-products. This is more important than ever as our Governments go into COP26 to discuss global action to reduce carbon emissions. Every tonne of WEEE recycled avoids around 2 tonnes of CO2 emissions. If we all do the right thing with our e-waste we help to reduce harmful CO2 emissions.”

Ruediger Kuehr, Director of the SCYCLE Programme, said: “A tonne of discarded mobile phones is richer in gold than a tonne of gold ore. Embedded in 1 million cell phones, for example, are 24 kg of gold, 16,000 kg of copper, 350 kg of silver, and 14 kg of palladium — resources that could be recovered and returned to the production cycle. And if we fail to recycle these materials, new supplies need to be mined, harming the environment.” 

Magdalena Charytanowicz, of the WEEE Forum, said: “Alongside convenience, financial compensation, care for the environment, culture and social norms, awareness is one of the key motivators for people to take action on e-waste.”

“This is why on 14 October we hope to reach as many citizens worldwide as possible and urge the proper disposal of end-of-life electronics by encouraging campaigns and awareness activities such as e-waste collections, school lectures, and social media outreach. Even the smallest action promoting sound e-waste collection, repair, reuse or recycling is welcome in the frame of International E-Waste Day.”

“Consumers want to do the right thing but need to be adequately informed and a convenient infrastructure should be easily available to them so that disposing of e-waste correctly becomes the social norm in communities.”