End-of-life technological equipment forms part of an exponentially-growing pile of global e-waste–all those unwanted televisions, kettles, washing machines, stereos, light bulbs, and myriad other electronics that have or could enter the waste stream. Europeans alone generate some 20 kg of e-waste per year and according to the UN, 200 million computers and 550 million mobile phones reached the end of their life in 2008.
Modern electronics can contain up to 60 elements; many of these are valuable, some are hazardous and some are both Inappropriate disposal or recovery of electronics can generate significant levels of hazardous emissions. Also, many of these elements are scarce and under increasing demand. Supply of 14 of the minerals used in modern electronics is at critical levels, with demand for these materials expected to triple by 2030 .
Raw materials for electronics are primarily supplied through mining, which demands large amounts of land and energy and generates numerous harmful emissions. For instance, 10,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions are generated to produce one tonne of gold, palladium or platinum.Additionally, the social impacts associated with the extraction of materials that are used in electronics are a significant concern.
Diverting computers from landfill is clearly desirable. Recycling, using appropriate handling techniques, can help avoid hazardous emissions whilst recovering valuable materials, and may reduce the greenhouse gas emissions associated with production of new equipment and mining.
Reuse avoids the need to extract more valuable resources or expend energy in the manufacture of new equipment. For example, refurbishing computers and mobile phones for reuse
can use up to a third less energy and is more “eco- efficient” than newly manufactured equipment.
Why should reuse be prioritized over recycling?
Waste management is often conceptualized in terms of a ‘waste hierarchy’, which ranks the different ways in which we can manage waste in order of relative environmental benefit . This hierarchy is reflected in various legislative frameworks, such as in the EU, where current policy first aims to prevent waste, then to reduce waste disposal through reuse, recycling and other waste recovery operations.