Finding a solution to WEEE: International E-Waste Day

Gary Moore, sales director at UNTHA UK, explores what the solution to WEEE is in an increasingly digital world, from reuse and recycling to recovery and disposal.

With the ever-evolving digitisation of modern society, waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) has been a growing recycling challenge in recent decades.

This is undoubtedly due to technology being consumed at an accelerated pace. From investing in the latest mobile phone to purchasing the most recent gaming devices and home gadgets, we’re all reliant upon technology in one way or another throughout our daily lives. The statistics confirm this.

Last year, the world’s collective WEEE was estimated at 57.4 million tonnes – up from 53.6 million tonnes in 2019. And this figure is only set to keep on growing.

A day to raise awareness

electricals

In 2018, WEEE Forum set up the first ‘International E-Waste Day’ – taking place on 14 October – not only in a bid to raise the profile of this waste stream among the public, but equally to encourage consumers to recycle their redundant WEEE.

And this year’s day is specifically focused upon the small electrical devices that households most commonly stow away in drawers or dispose of in the general waste bin.

The slogan fronting this campaign is: ‘recycle it all, no matter how small’.

These small ‘end-of-life’ items represent 22 million tonnes – of the collective 57 million tonnes – of e-waste produced worldwide. And it’s reported that this number will easily reach 29 million tonnes by 2030, if this stream continues to grow at the same rate as total e-waste figures – 3% per year.

Whether its mobile phones, electric toothbrushes, toasters, headphones, or kitchen gadgets, the sad fact is that once they reach the end of their ‘usable’ life, these products are often disregarded of incorrectly – either being landfilled or incinerated.

When this happens, the high-value component parts that are ‘locked inside’ these devices are lost, which is something that needs to be prevented.

The Waste Hierarchy states that prevention of waste should be the priority.

The Waste Hierarchy states that prevention of waste should be the priority, but where this is not possible, reuse, recycling, recovery, and disposal, should be explored, and in that order.

It is vital the general public is aware of this and that these steps are followed. This will not only help to reduce e-waste volumes – with fewer items being disposed of via landfill – but the valuable materials within can be effectively liberated, segregated, and recycled.

Taking mobile phones as an example. It’s reported that one million phones contain 24kg of gold, 16,000kg of copper, 350kg of silver, and 14kg of palladium – valuable resources which can and should be recovered.

While the waste industry knows that realising the resource potential of WEEE is a crucial step in helping to foster a circular economy, this needs to be made common knowledge on a mass, societal scale.

Identifying the root cause of the issue

Research in 2020 found that Britain is a population of ‘tech hoarders’ – with 55 million unused mobile phones hidden in drawers.

And when expanding the net further to Europe, in an average household, every person is believed to be stashing away 5kg of e-devices.

These are alarming figures, but we must ask ourselves the question, “why are people doing this?” Is it because they are unsure what to do with such items – unaware of the reuse and recycling opportunities available, perhaps? – or is it something else?

In 2019, for instance, only 17.4% of global e-waste was properly treated and recycled – with members of the public estimating this figure to be much higher, at 40-50%.

Simply keeping these devices stowed away is preventing any potential reuse or recycling from taking place.

Looking at this through the lens of the Waste Hierarchy, simply keeping these devices stowed away is preventing any potential reuse or recycling from taking place, and this is something the industry and global governments need to collaborate on to resolve.

It’s great to see initiatives already underway to help raise the profile of this issue – such as collection boxes in supermarkets and PO Boxes to return small e-waste items – but there’s undoubtedly more work to be done.

Where is WEEE recycling heading?

Old phones

WEEE is often referred to as the world’s fastest growing solid waste stream, and it’s been reported that if the world carries on as is the amount of e-waste will reach 120 million tonnes by 2050.

Yet while the waste industry needs to continue collaborating and innovating to ensure the technology is available to liberate and recycle these materials, product manufacturers and policy makers also need to play their part.

Devices should be designed with longevity and recyclability in mind, and long-term awareness-building campaigns should be introduced. Priority should also be given to implementing processes and infrastructure that make it easy for the public to recycle and correctly dispose of these items. Only then will a truly circular economy be possible.

I look forward to seeing what new conversations this year’s ‘International E-Waste Day’ will spark…

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