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From Computers and Games Consoles to Fridges and Freezers: An Insight Into Electronics Recycling

In the modern day, we are increasingly reliant on technology and electronic equipment. In the last quarter of 2018, Lenovo shipped an astonishing 13.6 million PCs worldwide and that’s just one brand of many! Now, consider how many other items of electronic equipment – including phones, white goods, games consols etc – have been produced and shipped over the past decade. The number is almost too gargantuan to contemplate.

This growth is great for the consumer; we now have such a wide variety of electronic equipment that we are spoilt for choice. However, it’s not so good for the environment. With all of this growth, comes a staggering amount of waste.

Below we explain the damaging effects of E-waste on the environment and how recycling companies can help.

The Effects of E-waste on The Environment

Although electronics are a relatively new type of waste in the grand scheme of things, the effects are becoming apparent already and when not disposed of or recycled correctly, can have a profoundly negative impact.

One of the most damaging effects of improperly disposing of your electronic waste in a landfill site is how it impacts the soil and water. Many electronic products contain a wide variety of materials, including heavy metals like lead, barium, mercury and lithium. When these metals are incorrectly disposed of, they can seep into the soil and have a dire effect on the surrounding environment.

Firstly, as these chemicals are not biodegradable, the toxic materials can enter into what’s known as the ‘soil-crop-food pathway’. This means that they can contaminate the very crops that we and our livestock eat. If enough of these toxins make their way into our food, then it can have devastating effects including irreversible birth defects. These defects can range from issues with the heart and brain, to the whole nervous system and reproductive system.

Also, e-waste being dumped into landfills means that water supply can be contaminated. When left on the soil for long periods of time, the toxins can travel through the porous soil to groundwater channels and then reach streams and ponds. Again, this impacts the overall environment, but it can also have a damaging effect on livestock which then has a damaging impact on humans.

Similarly, there are a lot of e-waste processing plants across the globe that dispose of e-waste irresponsibly. If a processing plant is run unethically, then the e-waste may be burnt which releases damaging hydrocarbons into the atmosphere. At the largest e-waste landfill in China, a study found that there was at least double the number of airborne dioxins than elsewhere.

From a social perspective, these unethical e-waste plants also tend to hire workers on a slave labour wage; particularly in developing countries. Unfortunately, the business of unethical e-waste disposal and trade is booming and is putting vulnerable people under significant health risks as well as exploiting them financially.

How Recycling Centres Are Solving The Problem

Unfortunately, even with all of these implications, not enough is being done to ensure that these toxic materials are being recycled. In fact, in 2015, it was discovered that 90% of e-waste was being illegally dumped. Due to this astonishingly worrying reality, governments and environmental agencies have stepped in to ensure they can mitigate the damage.

The WEEE Directive, for example, ensures that all electronics retailers provide their customers with a way to dispose of their old electronic goods when they buy a new product and that all Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) is disposed of correctly. Similarly, the restriction of hazardous substances (RoHS) directive aims to reduce the number of hazardous materials in electrical products when they’re being produced, which then helps in the disposal and recycling process.

The recycling of WEEE products can be a notoriously challenging process. This is because, in sophisticated pieces of equipment, there are a lot of different types of materials including metal, plastic and glass.

For example, within a laptop, there is a combination of all these materials. Plastic makes a substantial amount of this weight in the body, fans, wire insulation and circuit boards. In addition to this, there are many different types of plastics that make up a laptop. Some of these will be recyclable and some won’t be. Similarly, there are also a number of different types of metals present in a laptop. Much of this is aluminium, but steel and copper will also be present. Within the battery of the laptop, there is lithium as well as traces of silicon, indium, gallium, arsenic, tin, bismuth, gold and platinum to name just a few. Because of all these different materials, the recycling process of these products can be complex.

The process starts at the picking shed within the processing centre. It’s here that the e-waste products will arrive and must go through a couple of stages of manual disassembly. Firstly, the batteries will be removed and separated for quality checking to assess whether they can be reused. Following this first step, the entire item is then manually disassembled into its core components and materials and categorised accordingly into parts that can be reused as they are or need to go through further processing.

The material that needs to go through further processing, or cannot be disassembled effectively, goes through a shredder where they can be categorised again. These pieces are placed on a conveyor belt where they are separated into really fine dust particles and bigger pieces via shaking. The dust gathered from this process is disposed of in an environmentally friendly manner.

A large magnet is then placed over the remaining debris to separate the magnetic materials – like steel and iron – for further processing. Non-magnetic metals – like copper and aluminium – are then separated as well to leave only non-metallic materials. These metals are then melted down to be re-sold as raw materials, or reused for fresh components.

The non-metallic materials are then separated again by using water. Once the plastics and glass are separated from each other, the materials can be sold back as raw materials for further use to a wide range of industries.

Specifically, plastics are sent away to be made into other products like benches, plastic trays or plastic lumber which can be used in anything from decks to landscaping. Glass is utilised to make new tv and laptop screens and metals are melted down and sold back as bars for new projects.

Material like mercury and circuit boards are more complicated and must head off to specialist recycling facilities which use specialist tech to separate, sort and recycle the material. Often, toxins must be eliminated before they can be reused in other industries. Batteries must also be treated specially to recover the nickel, steel, cadmium and cobalt for new batteries and the plastic can be reused.

The South West’s Waste Disposal and Recycling Specialists

Devon Contract Waste have been in the waste disposal and recycling industry for three decades, helping businesses of all sizes in collecting, processing, recycling and disposing of their waste. We provide bespoke waste management, including data destruction services and plastic recycling.

We are proud of our professional service and always ensure that we put the customer front and centre. Whatever service you need, we can guarantee that your waste will be processed and disposed of ethically, professionally, efficiently and in compliance with regulations. We are able to handle all types of waste, including WEEE, have a ‘Zero to Landfill Policy’ and make collecting your waste easy and convenient.

To find out more, contact us. Our head office is based at Enviro Hub, Marsh Barton Road, Exeter, Devon, EX2 8NU. Alternatively, you can call us on 01392 690 1930 (Exeter), 1752 429 565 (Plymouth), 01823 215 483 (Taunton), 01872 304 602 (Cornwall) or email us at sales@dcw.co.uk.

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