The world produces approximately 50 million tonnes of electronic and electrical waste (e-waste) each year. Only 20% of this is formally recycled according to statistics from the UN.
Each year in the UK, 1.2 million tonnes of electrical and electronic waste is thrown away - the equivalent of 200 thousand elephants.
The e-waste created around the world each year is worth over $62.5 billion, more than the GDP of most countries. There is 100 times more gold in a tonne of e-waste than in a tonne of gold ore.
The need for e-waste disposal and tech recycling is only going to increase. We are using more and more technology, at home and in the workplace – and replacing it more frequently – as a result of growing consumer demand and shorter product lifespans due to planned obsolescence.
This is creating a problem, with tonnes of electronic waste being created each year. Over 75% of e-waste ends up in landfill, where dangerous substances such as lead, contained in the electrical goods, can cause soil and water contamination.
In this article, we explain more about e-waste and the electronic waste disposal process and have advice for businesses needing to understand how to properly dispose of computer equipment. We cover:
What is e-waste and why is it a problem?
How can we manage e-waste?
How does e-waste harm the environment?
How to recycle safely and considerately
What is e-waste, and why is it a problem?
E-waste is a term applied to electronic equipment approaching the end of its useful life. This includes computers, mobile phones, printers, photocopiers, as well as household appliances such as TVs, washing machines and vacuum cleaners.
The problem with much of the electronic equipment that we own and use is that, in this fast-moving sector, it soon becomes obsolete. So, to stay on top of technology, we upgrade to new devices. And while used electronics have a decent market, some of it inevitably becomes e-waste.
There is a growing awareness of the problem of waste in general – and in particular plastic – around the world. Many are working hard to minimise this waste stream, improving recycling and reducing single-use plastics.
Electronic waste needs careful and considerate disposal; although disposal isn’t the only option and there is a growing global market for reused electronic goods. Just because it doesn’t fit into your business, it doesn’t mean that someone can’t get use from it.
The e-waste problem
Electronic waste is especially problematic since it contains materials that can be potentially harmful to both people and the environment. E-waste has been connected with serious health risks that can result from direct contact with many of the harmful materials contained in electronic circuits. These include:
brominated flame retardants
These can be dangerous to people through touch and ingestion, as well as from inhalation of toxic fumes, and the accumulation of chemicals in soil, water and food.
There is also a range of rare-earth elements present in a lot of e-waste, including
These are essential in the design of microelectronics. They are regarded as rare because deposits of these elements, whilst plentiful on Earth, are generally only found in low concentrations. As a result, supplies can be difficult to secure.
Depending on what they are and their use, some obsolete electronic equipment can contain more than 1,000 different compounds, many of which can be considered dangerous to human health and the environment. But while potentially dangerous, they are also highly valuable and worth recycling for use in new devices and electronic equipment. As much as 7% of the world’s gold may be incorporated within e-waste.
As a result, electronic waste can have significant commercial value. This makes the old and discarded electronic devices worth recycling, and has made e-waste one of the fastest-growing waste streams in the world.
Electronic waste is regulated by the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE) which covers items across a range of categories including computers, household appliances such as vacuum cleaners and washing machines, music players, and mobile phones.
The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive was agreed on 13 February 2003, along with the related Directive on Restrictions of the use of certain Hazardous Substances in electrical and electronic equipment.
Under these regulations, all new electrical goods sold in the European Union and the UK must display the symbol of a crossed-out wheelie bin which indicates that they were produced after 13th August 2005 and should be recycled rather than being disposed of with normal household waste.
Waste should be managed in line with the priority shown in the diagram below, with landfill being the last resort.
How does e-waste harm the environment?
E-waste can be extremely harmful to the environment, containing heavy, poisonous elements that would not normally be seen in such strong concentrations. If e-waste is dumped carelessly and breaks down under the effects of sunlight, rain, and temperature fluctuations, these elements can find their way into the soil and, from there, into the water table. This could become a real problem as it will not only poison local wildlife and fauna but, if it does enter the water table, it could have serious ramifications for human health too.
Electronic waste can have a serious impact on our air quality too, particularly if the waste is being treated by a non-recognised recycling route, often in developing countries. If it is left to unregulated recycling, huge lengths of cabling are simply burnt to get at the valuable copper wires inside, and little regard is given to the mass burning or other components to melt out precious metals. All of this generates tonnes of smoke, resulting in air pollution.
As society has learned more about the e-waste problem, along with its inherent economic value, increasingly sophisticated electronic waste stream systems have been developed to reduce landfill and capitalise on valuable elements such as palladium, platinum, gold, cobalt, lithium, silver and copper.
Electronic waste recycling generally involves disassembling the items, separating and categorising the contents by material, and cleaning them so that they can be reused. Items are usually then shredded mechanically, with advanced separation technologies to help remove the precious metals, while leaving the printed circuit board material available for reforming if appropriate.
E-waste recycling plants process the waste stream, sending parts for recycling or reuse, and very little is rejected as unusable. Any materials that cannot be recycled are usually sent to landfill, but this is generally not a great amount. Because of the value of the materials going through the plant, they are set up to extract the maximum amount, making them highly efficient at what they do.
Most countries have facilities that are geared up to process waste of this nature efficiently and effectively, lessening its impact on the world, and helping to bring down the initial cost of electronic components.
How to dispose of e-waste
Many companies have a fairly sizeable turnover of electronic equipment, and there is usually a stream of laptops, desktops, printers, mobile phones, routers, displays, and even cabling that is being replaced. In larger businesses, the company may have a well-defined disposal route – particularly if they are compliant with ISO 9001 or ISO 14001 – and will be well used to the decommissioning and removal of old equipment or e-waste. However, if you are part of a smaller company, and have only limited electronics turnover, then this may be an area with which you need help. Don’t forget, if your equipment is leased, you can’t just get rid of it.
Understanding Sensitive Data
One of the main issues with the recycling of old business machines – computers and mobile phones in particular – is the need to secure and remove any personal or sensitive data that may be held in its memory, including credit card information.
Data theft is always a concern and the security of your employee’s personal data is important. But a potentially larger issue is the risk of losing business data, which could have serious business ramifications should it fall into the wrong hands. Not only that, any customer data ‘lost’ could result in a breach of GDPR, resulting in a substantial fine. The only safe thing to do is ensure that any equipment that you part with has had any sensitive data on it properly removed.
Take reasonable steps to delete all personal data from devices by clearing all files and reformatting hard drives. For greater peace of mind, organise for a third party company to support you – arrange for them to wipe the devices of all data to ensure your recycling processes are safe and secure.
How to reuse business machines and electronics
As we have already said, one person’s rubbish may be another person’s treasure. While old, lower specification laptops, printers, and phones may not be of use to you, it may be perfectly acceptable for someone else.
Reusing is always preferable to disposing of electronic equipment, and there are many people in other businesses or even in developing countries to whom your old equipment may represent a significant boost in technology.
Of course, if discarded computer equipment is going to be used outside of your business, it becomes especially important to ensure that any personal or business data is removed, but without upsetting the core operating system, which would make the equipment useless.
The best way to tackle this is to let a specialist company process the equipment and then pass it on via a charity. Such a company would be aware of data protection and would probably take the route of reformatting the hard drive and reinstalling the operating system from scratch, effectively making the computer a new and unused product. At the same time, they may check and swap out parts like optical drives as required, and check the operation of the keyboard and mouse pad.
Of course, you may find that you have a place for old equipment somewhere else in your business. Older computers may not run fast enough for your marketing and graphics department or run the latest CAD programs in engineering, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t be used for less demanding purposes. If it is doing fairly simple tasks, it may still work fine.
Tips on managing your IT equipment when it’s no longer meeting your business needs
1. Identify responsibility for disposing of computer equipment
Managing business IT assets can be a mammoth task. When it comes to replacing PCs, monitors, laptops, or servers, a company’s priority is to reduce downtime during the switch-over process.
Having someone dedicated to the management of your IT assets is a good way of ensuring that downtime is limited. When you’re at the stage of IT equipment disposal, the IT manager or IT team should have a process for logging all necessary repairs, replacements, and disposals. That way you know that the replacement process will go as smoothly as possible.
2. Dedicate some storage space for IT recycling
Disposing of computer equipment doesn’t always mean that you’ll be able to get rid of the old assets straight away.
As the new PCs arrive, will your IT team immediately be on hand to collect and dispose of your e-waste?
If that isn’t the case then you may need some suitable storage space for the equipment before recycling can be arranged. For an effective and swift process for recycling electronics equipment, separate your old IT equipment per the WEEE directive. This can help you to organise the equipment into different types of e-waste while in storage so that removal and disposal are as efficient as possible.
3. Work with a suitable computer recycling organisation
The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive is a set of regulations brought about by the European Commission to properly manage the disposal of all e-waste.
This ensures that treatment and recycling are improved and also that hazardous substances emitted from electrical equipment are dealt with safely.
Working with a reliable recycling organisation can remove the worry that you’re not in compliance with recycling regulations dictated by the directive. They will be able to organise the collection, and responsible recycling or disposing of e-waste, taking the pressure off your internal IT team and saving your company valuable time.
Always check that the third party provider has the correct licences in place. You can check this with the Environment Agency.
4. Have you got the correct documentation?
Regardless of whether you work with a computer recycling organisation, or manage the process internally, it’s essential you have the correct documentation.
If you outsource waste to a company, make sure you get the correct waste transfer notes (WTN) and a hazardous waste consignment note.
If a piece of WEEE waste is later found in landfill having being incorrectly disposed of, and you don’t have the correct documentation, there’s the risk of prosecution. So be sure that you receive a valid and correctly input WTN or hazardous waste consignment note and keep for your records.
5. Remember data security
Whether your e-waste is to be re-used (such as sent to schools in a developing country for charity) or if it’s simply going to be disposed of, you need to make sure it’s clear of your data.
A company PC/workstation will likely have many important files, documents, and information on it. Simply deleting them won’t be enough to make it secure.
Potential options are reformatting the hard drive and reinstalling the operating system, although this is no guarantee of clearing all of your company’s information either.
Other alternatives include buying specific software or apps that will ‘wipe’ the device; or physically destroying it. As data theft is such a serious threat in today’s world, many recycling organisations or third-party companies will provide complete data clearing from all devices as part of their service.
Hopefully, the tips above will help you to effectively manage your IT equipment and e-waste when it reaches the end of its operational life within your business.
As you can see, it will always require a certain level of involvement in regards to time and resources. End-of-life management takes almost as much planning and organisation as the initial procurement process for the devices.
Thankfully then, there’s an alternative. By leasing your IT assets from a transparent and industry-leading asset finance organisation, not only would they help you find the equipment you needed, remove the need for a large investment of capital and reduce the risk to your business – they can also take care of the end-of-life management.
When you’ve reached the end of your lease (or the operating lifespan of the equipment), the asset finance company would negotiate another lease to provide you with the latest equipment, collect your current devices and then erase all of your company’s secure data before recycling/reusing the hardware.