Commercial Waste

Electrical waste: a literal gold mine that no one can be bothered with

At the end of August it was reported by Reuters that Europe has failed to meet its electronic recycling goals – with only a third of all electronic waste heading to recycling centres.

Both Sweden and Norway were close to hitting targets after recycling 85 per cent of all electrical and electronic waste. At the other end of the scale, Romania, Spain and Cyprus were all found to have recycled less than 20 per cent of electrical waste.

A report published by the United Nations University (UNU) revealed that electronic waste is increasing globally at a rate of two million tonnes a year. Currently, only 16 per cent of electrical waste is being diverted to recycling plants – despite a potential market of £34bn.

The gold alone being thrown away is thought to be worth around £7bn.

David Malone, the UN under-secretary of UNU, said:

“Worldwide, e-waste constitutes a valuable ‘urban mine’ – a large potential reservoir of recyclable materials.

At the same time, the hazardous content of e-waste constitutes a ‘toxic mine’ that must be managed with extreme care. There is a large portion of e-waste that is not being collected and treated in an environmentally sound manner.”

Could financial rewards encourage more recycling?

The UK has been identified as one of the world’s largest producers of electrical waste – with each person generating 23.5kg per year; enough to rank the country fifth in the world.

Interestingly, the UK came sixth in the total amount of electronic waste per year at 1.5 megatons – just 100,000 tonnes less than India. A country that has 20 times the population.

The shortened life cycle of electronic products and the fact that many consumers are willing to let go of their products when a newer model is released – despite the older model often being in full working condition – has been cited as a primary reason for the high quantity of waste.

Federico Magalini, a UNU researcher, said:

“We should not simply try to stop consumption to minimise the amount of waste being generated, but should instead make sure that it is properly collected and recycled.

“There is an opportunity to create jobs and extract those resources currently being discarded.”

According to the EEA, illegal waste exports are one of the primary reasons that the UK hasn’t fully got to grips with electrical recycling.

The agency estimates that roughly 11,500 shipping containers are illegally exported to developing countries – most containing electronic waste amounting to 200,000 tonnes of material a year.

A recent report released by Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP), states that a large amount of precious materials lay hidden within everyday gadgets that are often discarded:

“Precious metals including gold, silver and platinum are predominantly found in high-end circuit boards.

“Under prevailing treatment practices which involve some element of shredding, there are significant losses of precious metals, in some cases over 50% by weight. Manual disassembly however increases time and cost required to retrieve boards from PCs or other equipment.”

The report also suggests a more fundamental approach to IT equipment and gadgets to enable faster recovery of printed circuit boards, as a single tonne can be worth up to £3,000 if in good condition.

So how does the UK fair with recycling in general?

According to a report by the European Environmental Agency (EEA) in March, recycling in the UK has risen at a quicker rate than any other country in the EU. After recycling only 12 per cent of all waste in 2001, the country recycled 39 per cent in 2010, finding itself on par with the rest of Europe.

While UK levels have increased, the same cannot be said for other countries in Europe, with Norway and Finland reversing their levels. Romania remains at the bottom with a static 1% of waste recycled.

Jacqueline McGlade, EEA executive director said:

“In a relatively short time, some countries have successfully encouraged a culture of recycling, with infrastructure, incentives and public awareness campaigns.

“But others are still lagging behind, wasting huge volumes of resources. The current intense demand for some materials should alert countries to the clear economic opportunities in recycling.”

Currently, according to the EU, the UK must recycle at least 70 per cent of municipal waste by 2020, though this target has been dismissed by the Tory government.

Andy has worked as a freelance journalist for a number of years and has been published in some of the UK’s top newspapers. He is now the editor Commercial Waste Magazine and contributes to a large selection of headlines and blog articles on the site.

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