Recycling WEEE, or waste electrical and electronic equipment, is crucial for several reasons.
WEEE is one of the fastest-growing waste streams in the world. In 2020 alone, the world produced 50,000,000 tonnes of electronic waste, and the UK currently generates the second-highest amount of e-waste per capita globally. But, while WEEE is, for the most part, highly recyclable, 155,000 tonnes of the stuff is thought to enter UK landfill sites each year. According to Uswitch, it is also estimated that a massive 40% of the UK’s e-waste is illegally exported for disposal overseas. The more information we all have about the correct recycling processes for electrical waste, the sooner we can start making changes to how we treat our waste electronics.
What counts as WEEE?
The UK government’s Health and Safety Executive categorises WEEE into ten broad groups:
- Large household appliances. For example, white goods and cooking appliances.
- Small household appliances. Think toasters, irons, and alarm clocks.
- IT and telecommunications equipment. This includes things like PCs, copiers, and phones.
- Consumer equipment. For example, radios, TVs, cameras and musical instruments.
- Lighting equipment. This includes fluorescent tubes, lamps and smart bulbs.
- Electrical/electronic tools. This is your drills, circle saws, lawnmowers, sewing machines etc.
- Toys, leisure, & sports equipment. For example, treadmills, electric trains and gaming consoles.
- Medical devices. This would include things like dialysis machines, medical freezers and more.
- Monitoring and control equipment. For example, smart home devices and smoke detectors.
- Automatic dispensers. This includes things like coffee machines and money dispensers.
Why is it important to recycle WEEE?
You’ve probably already interacted with several electronics or bits of electronic equipment today. For example:
- You probably woke up this morning to the sound of a phone alarm or alarm clock.
- Maybe you turned a lamp on to help you wake up.
- After your morning shower, you may have used a hairdryer or straightener.
- Maybe you brushed your teeth with an electric toothbrush or shaved with an electric razor.
- You might have checked the time on your watch to make sure you weren’t running late.
- Maybe for breakfast, you put a slice of bread into a toaster.
- Perhaps you reached into the fridge to get some milk for the cup of tea you made using an electric kettle.
At some point, every one of those devices will become waste.
The daunting thing about WEEE recycling for the average person is that it’s confusing. Electronic equipment comes in many shapes and sizes. For example, you might not consider the disposal of a hair dryer in the same way you consider disposing of a lawn mower. Due to the diversity of WEEE, it can be difficult to know if you can recycle it, how to recycle it and where to recycle it. The more inconvenient it becomes to deal with waste electronics, the more likely people may be to just throw devices away. With some electronic devices, there is also the worry of personal data remaining on the device and not wanting it to be accessed by anyone else. This can lead to devices being squirrelled away in drawers where they sit forever, gathering dust.
To encourage the recycling of waste electrical and electronic equipment, we think it’s important for people to know why these materials should be recycled and how that can be done responsibly.
By recycling WEEE, we can conserve the valuable resources contained inside electronic devices. Below are some examples of the resources you can typically find in items you use every day.
An average smartphone is estimated to house around 0.034g of gold, 0.34g of silver, 0.001g of platinum, 0.015g of palladium, 25g of aluminium and 15g of copper. These resources aren’t infinite. However, in the UK, we as individuals don’t tend to recycle old phones.
In research commissioned by the mobile phone network company Giffgaff, findings indicated that there could be 55 million unused phones across the UK hidden away that could be recycled or refurbished. If every phone contained the same average amount of gold in their circuit boards, this would amount to 1.87 tonnes of gold. To mine this amount of new gold would cost around £67,852,789. This is based on the cost to mine one ounce being £1,028.66.
By recycling old phones, we can save both money and finite resources. Even the Royal Mint is now recovering gold from old electronic devices, demonstrating how important it is for all of us to adapt and be less wasteful.
Like smartphones, computers also contain a wide range of valuable metals. This includes gold, silver, platinum, palladium, copper, nickel, cobalt, aluminium and more. Despite this, as a nation, we throw around 1 million computers into landfill each year. Even more wasted resources!
Wires and cables
There are thought to be enough cables in UK homes to go around the earth five times. If, like many of us, you have a drawer full of old cables that you aren’t quite sure you need or haven’t used in years, you can recycle these. The conductors used in most household cables and things like old Christmas lights are often made of valuable metals such as copper, aluminium or even gold! By recycling these wires, we can all save these precious resources and help to remove the emissions associated with mining for new metals. If your wires are still working, you may also be able to repair them yourself, donate them, or resell them, extending their life before recycling.
Supporting the economy.
Another reason to recycle old electronics is the money-saving potential.
As mentioned, electronic devices can contain valuable raw materials such as gold, copper, aluminium and more. In 2015, scientists collected samples from four closed landfill sites and found that the combination of aluminium and copper in these sites equated to an approximate value of £320 million. However, because mining through landfills would be so expensive, it’s not commercially viable to retrieve these metals, so they just go to waste.
By sending 155,000 tonnes of WEEE to landfill each year, those materials, and the potential for it to be reused is lost. Each year, the lost potential of WEEE in landfill is thought to cost the UK economy over £370 million. If all WEEE was recycled, the components could be reused in new electronics and also other technologies that could help the planet become greener overall – for instance, electric cars, solar panels and hydro-electric dams.
WEEE recycling also helps to create new jobs. With our e-waste volumes so high, it’s estimated that the proper reuse and recycling of old electronics could create half a million jobs in the UK alone.
Reducing the toxins that end up in landfill.
In an ideal world, no recyclable materials would end up in landfill. WEEE waste in landfill though is particularly devastating due to the harm it can cause to the environment. Waste electrical equipment often has components made of lead, mercury, and cadmium. These elements can leach into soil and water and can cause serious pollution, poisoning groundwater sources used by wildlife if not properly managed. As these chemicals make their way into other water sources, they eventually reach the seas and oceans where impacts devastate aquatic ecosystems.
So, if you have old electronic equipment lying around, don’t just throw it away. The best thing to do is to reuse or recycle it! By doing so, you’ll be helping to protect the environment, conserve valuable resources, reduce waste, and create new jobs. It’s a win-win situation for everyone.
So, how do you recycle WEEE?
The WEEE recycling process can vary per item, but as someone who just wants to ensure the safe and secure disposal of WEEE, the most important thing to ensure is that you are using a reputable supplier with the appropriate accreditations needed to handle and recycle waste electrical equipment.
WEEE shredding and recycling.
If your WEEE containing confidential information, for example, hard drives, cannot be reused or refurbished, the best way to dispose of it is through shredding. This is especially important for commercial WEEE. Shredding is a key part of the WEEE recycling process because it keeps your information secure and helps to break materials down into smaller fragments. This makes the metals and other recyclables much easier to extract in the recycling process.
As we are a Zero to Landfill company, we have strict processes for all sensitive information we shred. With laptops, for example, we would remove the hard drive and shred it. The remaining materials would be sent to a specialist processor in the UK for potential reuse, parts salvage or recycling into various metal and plastic grades. This helps the UK achieve its WEEE recycling/reuse targets.
When we shred any other items with metal elements, we typically send them to metal refineries or Energy from Waste. These facilities can separate metals and other recyclables using specialist magnets and other machinery, thus reducing waste by recovering reusable materials. Any remaining non-recyclables are incinerated to create energy for the National Grid.
The only restriction for WEEE shredding is that the items cannot contain batteries or hazardous components as these can cause fires. Batteries would need to be removed first and treated as hazardous waste.
At Shred Station, we can shred almost anything. Even for hazardous waste, we can facilitate a collection through our network of suppliers. If you aren’t sure or have any questions, please feel free to get in touch with our shredding experts who will be able to assist.
Donating household WEEE for reuse
While we would love to shred and recycle all your WEEE, reusing or donating it is also a great option to prolong its life and avoid landfill. If your WEEE is suitable for reuse, you may also be able to have it collected by charities. Alternatively, you could take it to your local recycling centre.
Another thing to note for domestic electrical waste is that, if you are buying a new version of the same item, for example, a new vacuum cleaner, the place you buy it from must provide you with a way to dispose of the old item. This applies regardless of the brand of the item or how you buy it (in-store, online or by mail order).
We hope this has helped! If you have any e-waste destruction requirements, don’t forget to get in touch for a quick quote.
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