Washing machines, fridges, computers, irons and other appliances that run on electricity are an underestimated source of valuable metals and many reusable materials. This year, there will be 8 kilograms of electro-waste for every person on the planet, of which only 17.4 per cent will be recycled. The remaining amount that ends up in landfill is worth $10 billion. And that's just for IT equipment.
WEEE is nothing but waste electronic and electrical equipment, commonly referred to as electro-waste or e-waste. This group includes used, obsolete or broken equipment of various types that used to run on electricity or batteries.
Real gold can be found in rubbish. Electro-waste is full of valuable elements. Unfortunately, most of it is not recycled
What do we count as electro-waste?
The electro-waste that has been defined, and which can be recycled, has been collated into six groups. Each group is strictly characterised by both size and the materials of which it is composed.
In addition, the classification is based on the technological processing capacity of the equipment, i.e. the recyclability. The classification includes the following classes:
- Temperature exchange equipmente.g.: refrigerators, freezers, air conditioning equipment, heat pumps, oil-containing heaters and other temperature exchange equipment using fluids other than water for temperature exchange purposes;
- Screens, monitors and equipment containing screens with an area greater than 100 cm2e.g.: laptops, notebooks, monitors, televisions, digital LCD photo frames;
- Lampssuch as: straight as well as compact fluorescent lamps, high pressure discharge lamps, low pressure sodium lamps - including pressure sodium lamps and metal halide lamps, and light emitting diodes (LEDs);
- Large-scale equipmentwhich any external dimension exceeds 50 cm, in particular: household appliances, IT and telecommunication equipment, consumer equipment, luminaires, equipment reproducing sound or images, musical equipment, electrical and electronic tools, toys, leisure and sports equipment, medical devices, monitoring and control instruments, automatic dispensers, equipment for the generation of electric currents. This group does not include equipment included in equipment groups 1 to 3, e.g.: washing machines, dishwashers, electric hot plates, large computers - mainframes, large medical devices, photovoltaic panels;
- Small equipmentand none of whose external dimensions exceeds 50 cm, in particular: household appliances, consumer equipment, luminaires, equipment reproducing sound or images, musical equipment, electrical and electronic tools, toys, leisure and sports equipment, medical devices, monitoring and control instruments, automatic dispensers, equipment for the generation of electric currents. This group does not include equipment included in equipment groups 1 to 3 and 6, e.g.: hoovers, microwave ovens, irons, hi-fi equipment, watches, heat regulators;
- Small IT and telecommunications equipmentwhose external dimensions do not exceed 50 cm, e.g.: mobile phones, printers, personal computers, routers, GPS, and telephones other than mobile phones.
The statistics are frightening, but offer hope
According to information published by the Nairobi-based United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), mankind produces 50 million tonnes of electronic waste each year (It is estimated that the value of the different types of materials and raw materials recovered from this e-waste is as high as EUR 48 billion).
This huge amount of waste is only 20 per cent recycled. The remaining percentage is stored at home or dumped in general landfills, thus becoming an environmental hazard.
An example illustrating the threat posed by e-waste not recycled is mobile phones. One such device left in the environment is capable of contaminating 1 m3 soils and render 400 litres of water unusable.
In the case of Europe, statistics show that each person in the European Union produces around 16 kilograms of electro-waste each yearof which less than half is well collected and recycled. According to Eurostat, the largest producers of e-waste are: Germany, the UK and France.
Poland is ranked 7th among all EU countries. In 2021, approximately 560,000 tonnes of this waste was collected in our country and this figure is expected to increase every year, despite the fact that there are 2.43 million pieces of broken equipment (for the IT range) lying around in our homes that could already be recycled. 21 per cent of Poles also admit to having disposed of waste electrical and electronic equipment in the general waste bin despite awareness of the need to dispose of WEEE at designated sites.
A big issue regarding electro-waste in global circulation is the smallest e-waste. In 2022, the United Nations estimates that 2.4 billion small e-waste items were generated worldwide, with e-cigarettes, electric toothbrushes and toys that run on electricity or battery power among them. In Europe alone, the continent's residents throw away 1.4 kilograms of small e-waste per person each year. The amount of e-cigarettes thrown into the general trash each year is so high that they collectively weigh six times more than the Eiffel Tower.
The list of electro-waste includes used computers, telephones, televisions, irons, among others
Examples work for the imagination
Virtually everything can be extracted and recycled from electro-waste. Metals (including precious metals such as gold, silver, platinum and rare earth metals), metal alloys (e.g. aluminium, which is a high-carbon material in production), plastics, mineral oils, heat-resistant glass are just a few examples of raw materials that can be obtained from e-waste.
To illustrate the economic and environmental sense of recycling electro-waste, it should be pointed out that processing a tonne of e-waste yields 100 times more gold than processing a tonne of gold ore.
And other examples? Here they are:
- A 27kg computer comprising a monitor, disk drive, keyboard and mouse delivers: 7 kg of glass, 6 kg of steel, 6 kg of plastics and copper, lead, aluminium and gold;
- from 5 computers we get gram of gold;
- a ton of printed circuit boards found in electronic devices delivers: 800 grams of silver, 150 grams of gold and 50 grams of highly valuable palladium;
- on average, one mobile phone can acquire approximately 50 milligrams of gold;
- A tonne of used mobile phones is: 130 kg of copper, 3.5 kg of silver and between 150 and 340 g of gold;
- refrigerator compressor includes 3 kilograms of copper and 6 kilograms of ferrous metals;
- and what will one fridge provide? 15 to 20 kg of steel, 4-8 kg of aluminium and copper, 5-9 kg of plasticswhich can be reused and up to 3 kg of mineral oil.