With GDPR coming into effect on May 25th, many people, from business owners to environmental professionals like ourselves, are becoming concerned about the fate of their electronics post-disposal.
With horror stories about old computers full of Bitcoins, and international security agencies ‘losing’ important files in the bin – it’s enough to make you pay closer attention to what electronics you’re throwing out.
In this article, we are going to cover a lot of ground, talking about everything from WEEE and hazardous waste, to ‘Frankenstein’ laptops and the precious metals in your gadgets.
WEEE stands for Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment, and it will account for a projected 49.8 million tonnes globally of items headed for the landfill. This has to stop. Worse still, most of that WEEE produced in the UK doesn’t end up in our own landfills, but instead gets exported to countries like China, India, and Ghana, where they will dump it close to poor communities so that they can manually recycle electronics for parts and materials.
We are trying to do our part, educating and encouraging customers to look more closely at their waste streams, and find alternatives to the bin for their electronic waste. When collecting e-waste, we carefully follow all compliance guidelines, and in most cases, we are able to find some refurbishment or reuse opportunity. Sometimes, the component materials in e-waste, like plastic, metals, and glass, can be recycled, even when the equipment is beyond repair. Even batteries, which are full of hazardous chemicals, can be recycled!
One of the main things getting thrown out and considered obsolete are hard drives, the part of your computer that stores data. There are several types of hard drive, like USB sticks, external hard drives and the storage component of a PC tower or laptop. In some of the world’s largest e-waste landfills, like Guiyu, in China, and Agbogbloshie, in Ghana, these devices can be some of the most valuable finds for the recyclers who sift, day in, day out.
In one hard drive, you can find aluminium, platinum, palladium, copper and gold, all in small amounts, but over time, if enough hard drives are broken down for component parts, and the materials are collected, there is a lot of money to be made for these communities. However, actually separating the metals from the devices requires a highly-pollutive melting process that leads to high toxicity levels, and in Guiyu, mentioned before, there are some of the highest cancer and mortality rates in the world, as a result.
To stop hard drives going to these e-waste graveyards, we make sure to repair and refurbish them, and in the process, we use a software called Blancco (read more here) to completely wipe the drives so that no data can be leaked. This means that the hard drives can then be sold or donated, keeping them in use, reducing pressure on the manufacturing industry to produce more.
Some electronics and electrical equipment are classed as hazardous, due to the chemicals that are contained within them. For example, some fridges and freezers contain what are known as ‘ozone-depleting substances’ (CFCs and HFCs). Some televisions and older computer monitors have cathode ray tubes within them, which are also classed as hazardous because of the pressure they are made in, which means they can implode and cause damage via glass shards. Capacitors often contain the highly toxic ‘polychlorinated biphenyls’, and some batteries are made with nickel cadmium, which is poisonous to humans.
So many industries have redesigned their products to avoid using these chemicals, which previously were not fully understood, and so newer electronics pose fewer recycling and health challenges. For old WEEE, recycling is not always possible, and neither is reuse, so disposal is left as the only option. There’s little we can do about this, other than encourage manufacturers to move away from hazardous materials so that their products can be repaired, refurbished, reused or recycled. This is a core principle behind the circular economy – to design for reuse and recycling.
When we collect WEEE from our customers, the following happens
- Collected items are brought back to our facilities
- Our IT department run diagnostics on equipment, looking to find any issues or faults
- If repairable, the repairs are made and the items are cleaned up
- If non-repairable, items are stripped down to component parts
- Useful components are kept in our store to be used for the future, for building what we call ‘Frankenstein Laptops’
- Unusable components are sent for recycling
- Precious metals are sold
‘Value in Recovery’ – James Rubin
We are going to round off this article with some fine words from the Enviro Waste Founder, James Rubin.
‘When I started Enviro Waste, I was hellbent on improving the resource efficiency of this industry by supporting other businesses and residents with their waste needs. We’ve gone from strength to strength thanks to the fact that we see the value in recovery. In one piece of equipment, you might have some usable spares, some recyclable plastics that can be sold in bulk, and some precious metals that can be collected and sold – so think twice before throwing something in the bin. Broken is only half of the story.’