Finding a solution to WEEE: International E-Waste Day


Gary Moore, Sales Manager at UNTHA UK explores what the solution is for WEEE in an increasingly digital world, from reuse and recycling to recovery and disposal.

With the ever-evolving digitization of modern society, Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) has been a growing challenge for recycling in recent decades.

This is undoubtedly due to technology being consumed at an accelerated pace. From investing in the latest mobile phone to purchasing the latest gaming devices and home appliances, we all rely on technology in one way or another in our daily lives. Statistics confirm this.

Last year, the global WEEE collective was estimated at 57.4 million tonnes, up from 53.6 million tonnes in 2019. And that number is only set to increase.

A day to raise awareness

electricsIn 2018, the WEEE Forum established the first “International E-Waste Day” to take place on October 14th, not only to raise awareness of this waste stream among the general public, but also to encourage consumers to recycle their surplus WEEE .

And this year’s day focuses specifically on the small electrical appliances that households most often stow away in drawers or dispose of in the residual waste bin.

The slogan behind this campaign is “recycle everything, no matter how small”.

These little old devices make up 22 million tons – out of a total of 57 million tons – of e-waste produced worldwide. And it’s reported that that figure will easily reach 29 million tons by 2030 if that power continues to grow at the same rate as total e-waste — 3% per year.

Whether it’s cell phones, electric toothbrushes, toasters, headphones or kitchen gadgets, the sad fact is that at the end of their ‘useful life’ these products are often wrongly neglected – either in landfill or incineration.

When this happens, the high-quality components that are “locked in” in these devices are lost, which must be prevented.

The waste hierarchy states that waste prevention should be a priority.

The waste hierarchy states that waste prevention should be a priority, but where this is not possible reuse, recycling, recovery and disposal should be examined, in that order.

It is important that the general public is aware and that these steps are followed. Not only does this help to reduce the amount of e-waste – as fewer items go to landfill – but the valuable materials it contains can be effectively liberated, separated and recycled.

Using cellphones as an example. One million phones are reported to contain 24kg of gold, 16,000kg of copper, 350kg of silver and 14kg of palladium – valuable resources that can and should be recovered.

While waste management knows that harnessing the resource potential of WEEE is a crucial step towards promoting a circular economy, this needs to be made widely known at a broader societal level.

Identifying the root cause of the problem

Research in 2020 revealed the UK is a population of ‘tech hoarders’ – with 55 million unused mobile phones tucked away in drawers.

And if you extend the network further into Europe, it is estimated that each person in an average household hoards 5 kg of e-devices.

Those are alarming numbers, but we have to ask the question, “Why are people doing this?” Is it because they’re unsure what to do with such items — perhaps because they’re unaware of the reuse they’re doing – and recycling possibilities are there? – or is it something else?

For example, in 2019 only 17.4% of the world’s e-waste was properly treated and recycled – although the public estimates that number to be much higher at 40-50%.

Simply stowing away these devices prevents potential reuse or recycling from taking place.

Looking at this through the lens of the waste hierarchy, simply stowing away these devices prevents potential reuse or recycling, and this is something industry and global governments need to work together to find a solution.

It’s great to see that awareness-raising initiatives are already underway – such as collection boxes in supermarkets and post boxes for the return of small e-waste items – but there is undoubtedly more to do.

Where is WEEE recycling headed?

old phonesWEEE is often cited as the world’s fastest growing solid waste stream, and it has been reported that the amount of e-waste will reach 120 million tonnes by 2050 if the world carries on as before.

But while the waste industry must continue to collaborate and innovate to ensure the technology to release and recycle these materials is available, product manufacturers and policy makers must also play their part.

Devices should be designed for durability and reusability, and long-term awareness campaigns should be carried out. Priority should also be given to implementing processes and infrastructure that make it easier for the public to recycle and properly dispose of these items. Only then will a true circular economy be possible.

I look forward to seeing what new conversations this year’s International E-Waste Day will spark…