The use of electronic products has grown massively over the past two decades. Products that were once prized status symbols, for example mobile phones and computers are now verging on being almost disposable items, and consumer electronics are the fastest growing segment of the municipal solid waste stream.
In the US there have been numerous attempts to develop a Federal law on electronics recycling, but so far without success. State requirements exist but vary from state to state. Take CRTs For example. California considers them to be hazardous waste, has banned them from landfills and made them subject to special handling requirements. Massachusetts and Florida on the other hand have reduced special handling requirements if these products are sent for recycling.
Governments are realising that manufacturers play a large part in the solution to electronic waste. In the US the Environmental Protection Agency is working with manufacturers and retailers to reduce the environmental impact of their products. And In an effort to publicise and promote electronic recycling, their ‘Plug-In To eCycling’ campaign aims to increase the national recycling rate of computers, TVs, and cell phones to 35 per cent.
Europe too has adopted a two-pronged approach. The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE Directive) has two aims; firstly to reduce the amount of electrical and electronic equipment being produced, and secondly to encourage people to reduce, reuse, and recycle old electronic products.
The Directive has put the responsibility for the disposal of waste electronic equipment on to the manufacturers. They’re required to collect the waste free of charge and then to either dispose of it in an ecologically friendly way or reuse or refurbishment it.
Reusing products is of course preferable to recycling them as it extends the products’ lives of and keeps them out of the waste stream. However, before donating your old computer or TV to your neighbour, school or local worthy cause, make sure the equipment still works – nobody wants to be lumbered with a load of useless junk!
If reuse or repair is not a viable option, electronics should be recycled, not thrown into landfill. Electronic products contain many rare and valuable metals and it makes sense to try and recover these, rather than dig them out of the ground. And burning electronic items or putting them in landfill can pose serious health and environmental risks. And now that the onus is being placed on manufacturers to dispose of electronic equipment, they are looking at how to design their products to make them easier to take apart and recycle.