E-Waste which is called WEEE (Waste Electronic and Electrical Equipment) in Europe is now regularly collected under programs implemented by the large electrical and electronics manufacturers, throughout each country. Each consumer has the right to take their old goods back to the original shop or hand the old one in when they buy a new one. In effect, the large manufacturers have been forced by law to get together and set up a recycling and reprocessing program for each type of e-waste. Now, only the residual non-hazardous materials left over after all the parts are first recycled (if not reprocessed into separate material streams), will go to a landfill.
In effect, the EU has listened to the public, who were sick and tired of ever more huge, and ever more smelly and dusty landfills, and has made the manufacturers take back and solve the disposal of their own products. The manufacturers in most cases now either employ local reprocessing companies in each country in the EU, or ship the material back to their factories. Smaller manufacturers are allowed to join in with the giant electrical and electronic goods manufacturers, but must contribute to the cost.
Now, you could question the wisdom of sending scrapped TVs and old monitors hundreds or even thousands of miles to be broken up, using tons of fuel and making carbon dioxide emissions all along the way. But, if you did so you would be missing the point. The point is that because the manufacturer must take responsibility for the cost of disposing of his e-waste, he will be much less likely to create products in the first place which are expensive to dispose of — or worse still, classed as hazardous waste when disposed. Hazardous waste is very costly to dispose of, and in the UK will normally cost over £100/ton.
So electrical goods are being manufactured to be lighter and smaller to make less waste at the end of their useful lives. But probably of most value to the environment is the impetus that now exists to remove the hazardous chemicals in circuit boards and in other products, which is gaining pace with new technologies using (for example) special new plastics in place of heavy metals based components. Also, where the removal of hazardous chemicals cannot yet be achieved, each component is being designed so that the hazardous parts can be easily separated for recycling. If recycling is impossible, reprocessing is chosen, and everything useful is taken out during reprocessing before the residual materials go to the landfill.
The idea of reprocessing e-waste will really come of age when all these new recyclable products start to be disposed over the next few years. Gradually as this happens, the recycling and reprocessing stage will begin to make real economic sense. Rather than seeing recycling and reprocessing as a drain on resources, companies will begin to invest in new production techniques and materials which will by design lend themselves to recycling, and the old e-waste itself will be seen as a resource. It will be a valuable source of raw materials.
When that happens, we will truly be able to say that e-waste recycling and processing has come of age, and the world’s resources will be conserved to simply top-up the materials within the recycling system. No longer will society simply be plundering raw materials which within a few short years end up in landfills. Now these materials will be re-used 10 to 100 times before being lost to the cycle of recycling and go to a landfill. Also, the landfills will be much smaller and not contain offensive materials.
For the future consumer, this will mean that buyers of all the latest gizmos and devices can do so knowing that the environment is protected, and our consumerism is as sustainable as possible…
…in Europe, anyway.