Sustainable guide to enjoying and discarding of vintage electrical and electronic items

When it comes to unused, broken or discarded things – anything with a plug and/or electrical charger/batter – should be set aside. It doesn’t need to be that old to be a redundant space blocker. We’re reaching towards a circular economy always, so, component and metallic rich electricals should never go in the black bin.

Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE), is a dedicated waste recycling initiative, founded in 2005. Their everyday work involves pointing our wiry old rubbish to local authority recycling centres and participating WEEE retailers. 

WEEE CEO Leo Donovan explains, “Anything with a plug, battery or circuit board contains valuable components which can be used again in manufacturing. This is not just the big lumps of machinery. Some consumers may believe that old, unfixable toys and small electronic or electrical items are not as important in terms of recycling compared to larger items – but with the rise in consumption of say gaming consoles and entertainment devices, it is more important than ever that they are given the same priority.”

According to recent data released by WEEE, only one in three of the most popular electronic and electrical gifts sold in Ireland is recycled. Just 33% of end-of-life beauty and consumer electrical – hair straighteners, shavers, instant print cameras, headphones and Bluetooth speakers were diverted from landfills. That figure drops dramatically to just under 10% for electronic toys including gaming consoles, action figures, e-scooters and e-bikes. 

Leo Donovan remarked in a recent report by the organisation, “So many of these items can be repaired, reused or re-gifted, but if they cannot, make sure you recycle them for free.” The message is to “bring it, not bin it”.

Together with the expected electronic and toys, don’t forget other WEEE friendly items including gas-discharge –bulbs, fluorescent tubes and low energy light bulbs, together with rechargeable and single-use domestic batteries of all kinds. It’s estimated that every Irish household has 4 unused or discarded electrical or battery fed items and it’s time as stated by the Royal Society of Chemistry (UK) to “mine that e-waste rather than mining the Earth”.

Judging by the response in my local town of Fermoy where the huge designated car-park cages are brimful of desktops and gutted microwaves by early morning – the strangely exciting recycling days are a fantastic gift to any local community. The group encourages us to be “E-Detectives” with their Follow-The-Lead campaign. 

EU data shows that smartphones – (totally wrecked or obsolete, common-as-muck, unsalable) are one of the most oddly hoarded items placed tenderly in “that” drawer by consumers. Check the make and model, and ensure it’s not some rarefied Mobira Senator worth €1,000 before you recycle it (easily done with the multiple brick-phone geek guides online including the popular mobilephonehistory.co.uk). To prolong their working role, will on working phones to friends or family. Just think about it – there are 24 kg of gold, 16,000 kg of copper, 350 kg of silver, and 14 kg of palladium embedded in one million cellphones.

Apart from being operationally faulty – some large appliances are obsolete and potentially dangerous in terms of condition and engineering features. There’s no prize for having the oldest washer/dryer in the county. Antique kilowatt monsters aside, recall notices for younger units come and go in the press and online, largely unseen. There are potentially tens of thousands of faulty washing machines,/tumble dryers and other large and small appliances out in the marketplace. 11,000 washing machines were recalled by Hotpoint and Indesit in the UK and Ireland in 2019/2020 alone. Chilling. Many included a dangerous door-lock mechanism, that – “in very rare cases, can overheat, which, depending on product features, can pose a risk of fire.”

Vintage goods such as 1940s fans should be checked out and certified as safe by a RECI-registered electrician before you ever plug the piece in at home. Old wiring and failing components could prove a fire hazard.

In 2017 my own elderly parents lost their house to a relatively new clothes dryer with a badly engineered lint collector featured on a recall list. Connecting a pinch of lint in the filter with the heating element, the machine blew up, igniting a fire that left their house a charred shell. The brand involved accepted responsibility after a contentious investigation – but the bean-counters could not re-materialise half a century of sentimental objects with a cheque. For ultimate peace of mind, go to the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (CCPC), and look for modern products of a huge variety recalled through the European database. 

The CCPC also manage Ireland’s input to the EU product safety Rapid Alert Recall system (RAPEX). Sent on to the maker’s website, check your large appliances by model number. For laundry appliances, this unique number can be found either on the back of your washing machine, or in the recess of the door.

If you’re wondering when to surrender an older electrical item – say a laptop, or even a dishwasher, it’s time to explore why you are hanging onto it and if it’s actually operational and completely safe. You can update the hardware in many computers, but one of the easiest things to do with large white goods that break, is to figure out the probable cost of the repair. We then balance this against the price of a new model with a better energy efficiency specification that will save you money every time it runs. It’s difficult to find any repair specialist who will come to the house for less than €50, and I don’t blame them.

When you replace like-for-like with a high street retailer, as members of the WEEE initiative, they must take your old appliance and appropriately dispose of it when it’s offered up. In this case, the saga is over. You of course don’t have to give the item away, but would you stand over the perfect safety of a worn-out appliance staged in the home of another family. Really? If the item is just not suiting your lifestyle and is lightly used and even still in warranty, that’s another matter. Otherwise, the rare Earth metals in that appliance might be recoverable through recycling.

With vintage goods that fall decades outside all safety protocols and standards, the responsibility to ensure they are safe is all yours. Some retro inclined firms repair and restore pieces to modern safety specifications, for example adding new fabric wiring to mid-century pendant lighting. The detailing and certification of these changes should be volunteered when asked for. Otherwise, with charity shops and used furniture stores, there’s a very good reason why many second-hand outlets do not accept electrical goods – hair-dryers, kettles, vacuum cleaners and so on – anything at all. Vendors are nervous. There’s a safety question mark regarding handing these goods blithely over the counter. You can ask buyers to have the piece checked by a professional sparks – but will they really do it?

I’m not saying don’t buy that incredible 1940s industrial fan, but if you fall for something used, vintage or downright ancient that’s powered – be it a lava lamp or a vintage stereo, it should be thoroughly checked by a RECI qualified electrician before you ever plug it in. Many of these pieces are left in the power outlet day long. Without being rewired and checked for vital components, they could turn your home into a nostalgic memory when you’re away or God forbid when you’re asleep in bed.

Use the interactive WEEE map to find your nearest local recycling centre, Public Collection Day, Electrical Retailer and Bulb Exchange Store. Waste portable batteries can be recycled at your local newsagent.



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