Responsible disposal of e-waste should be a business priority

e-waste

When asked to think about the topic of e-waste and recycling, our brains are likely to conjure up the image of mountains of surplus food or seas of single-use plastics, probably because this is what is often shouted about the most within the media. But what about other equally important waste streams such as waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE)?

Over the last eight years, there have been an estimated 420.3 million metric tons of e-waste produced around the world and this figure is predicted to double by 2050. Given these stark statistics, it is fair to say that e-waste may be the fastest growing waste stream in the world and one of the biggest waste challenges we face, not only on a regional or national level but a global one too.

Part of the reason for this is because e-waste varies significantly in terms of size and composition, which causes issues when it comes to recycling. Televisions, refrigerators, toasters, laptops, and phones are all types of e-waste, but each one has different requirements for disposal. E-waste products are also often either toxic or hazardous, which creates further complications.

Products are made of a variety of different materials, which creates challenges when it comes to separating them. To solve this, separation and recycling is often performed by hand, which is time-consuming and requires specialist skills and training. Waste companies need to follow correct procedures so that the recycled materials can be sold on for further processing.

The labour-intensive nature of e-waste disposal means that it has historically been shipped to developing countries for separation and disassembly – or worse, dumped in landfill.

Donations and trade-ins

According to Marcus Brew, MD of industrial waste shredder specialist, UNTHA UK, while electrical equipment may be unwanted by one person or company, it is often in perfect working order, and reuse should be prioritised in the first instance. One of the ways in which businesses can reduce their e-waste is through trade-ins, which is designed for organisations looking for a way to recycle their used devices and offset the cost of new equipment.

Lucy Randall, product director at Jigsaw24, says that there are multiple benefits to the customer and the environment with this service. As functioning equipment is refurbished for resale and non-functioning devices are fully recycled, with parts being reused and not sent to landfill, sustainability-focused companies can rest assured that these choices are more environmentally friendly than simply disposing of the equipment. Refurbishing used devices and finding secondary markets allows organisations to share the carbon footprint among additional users to lower the overall environmental impact by extending the equipment lifecycle.

“An added benefit of trade-ins is that users can gain value from trading their devices for credit, as this can go towards a discount on future purchases. This makes business sense and is environmentally conscious, helping companies to reduce their e-waste whilst contributing towards their ESG targets,” adds Randall.

“It is worth noting that, on top of this, key trade-in services offer secure data erasure, meaning that all personal information is wiped from each device, and will not be passed onto any future owners.”

However, if the electrical items are broken and cannot be refurbished or reused, that does not mean they are destined for the scrap heap.

Recycling e-waste

Recycling has risen in public consciousness because governmental policies have become easier to understand and thus adopt. Equally, brands soon followed suit by responding to consumer demand for more recyclable products and materials.

“Much can be learned from existing recycling processes of plastic and cardboard,” asserts Beth Murphy, a waste and circular economy expert at PA Consulting. “Collectively, brands, manufacturers, and policymakers could collaborate to create an implementable blueprint for e-waste recycling.

“To incentivise recycling of e-waste, new technology and methods must be introduced to make it easier and thus more appealing for both consumers and tech manufacturers. But even before those kinds of technologies are implemented, local infrastructure needs to be improved to help consumers easily recycle electronic goods as opposed to hoarding or unsafely discarding them. Financially incentivising recycling facilities to collect unused electric devices could potentially address this problem.”

Local authorities are answering the call. Ealing council in west London, for example, has put forward a scheme where households can arrange the collection of unwanted e-waste and the items are disposed of free of charge, as long as they have at least one bag of unwanted clothes, shoes and textiles to exchange. Other local authorities, such as Brent Council in north-west London, offer a paid-for service for unwanted bulky items, including e-waste.

Responsible design

For Murphy, however, while recycling is the last loop of the circular economy, we should recognise it as only one part of a solution since it does not fully undo the harm of manufacturing in the first place. Designers must figure out how to create products that are both beautiful and can endure far longer.

One of the core principles of the circular economy and the waste hierarchy is that materials are designed and produced with reuse and recycling as a priority. This often conflicts with the need to produce products cheaply, but businesses now have moral and reputational incentives to elevate sustainable objectives above cost-cutting.

According to Chris Williams, founder and CEO of ISB Global, an actionable and achievable first step is for businesses to produce goods that last longer, are easy to repair, and which include components that can be easily sourced and replaced. In addition, all products should themselves be made of recycled materials or sustainably sourced resources, while being easy to disassemble into component parts that can then be reused or recycled.

John Phillips, general manager at Zuora, agrees. He says that businesses should push greener initiatives is by participating in the Circular Economy. As part of this, products are intentionally designed to make them easier to reuse and repurpose, meaning a reduction in energy and minimising waste in landfills. By implementing a circular model, consumers no longer need to buy into new products, instead they can subscribe to a bigger ecosystem. 

“We have already seen Nokia incorporate this model into their business,” says Phillips. “Customers are encouraged to hold onto their phones for longer and trade them in for new devices when they would normally buy a new phone outright. When the phones are returned, they are given a new lease of life, and either refurbished, donated or given to another subscriber. Not only does this system create less waste and emissions, but it also promotes customer loyalty.

“With more businesses embracing these new initiatives, we can take a step forward in transitioning from the Subscription Economy to the Sustainability Economy.”

More effort required to curb unnecessary e-waste

There is still plenty of work to be done, however. “I am a firm believer in ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’. This topic is not talked about enough by the Government, and, as a result, it is not at the forefront of the general public’s stream of consciousness,” claims Brew.

Williams, however, notes that businesses are already subject to legal regulation around the waste they produce. The Environmental Act of 2021, for example, was designed to prevent waste by reducing the quantity of a given product that becomes waste, and increasing reuse, redistribution, recovery and recycling. Regulations introduced in the act also mean producers are required to fund the disposal of materials, which is intended to encourage them to design products that are more sustainable.

Further, Williams says that waste management and recycling companies can play their part to improve sustainability by making use of new technologies and processes. Putting in place an integrated IT system that aggregates and analyses data from across multiple separate operations, for example, could lead to more accurate reporting and more informed decision-making.

“There is undoubtedly a mass-scale education and awareness piece that is needed, to make the importance of recycling WEEE known — not only to reduce the volume of such items entering landfill but to protect our planet’s health too,” concludes Brew.

“While compliant processing of WEEE may be the job of the waste operator, it is the responsibility of every business and individual to be aware of what is possible and ensure such items are not thrown in the bin. This should be done in line with the Waste Hierarchy model, which outlines the preferred order of managing waste — prevention, reuse, recycling, recovery, and disposal.

“Along with government action, it is vital that waste and recycling professionals like myself play their part in spreading the word that our ‘waste’ should be indeed seen as a ‘resource’. It is only when public awareness and industry innovation work in tandem that ambitious sustainability targets can be met, and the chance for a truly circular economy is truly within grasp.”

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