Why and how to recycle electronic waste?

In industrialised countries, electronic waste represents between 20 and 50 million tonnes of WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) per year.

WEEE contains highly polluting materials for soils. As heavy metals, organic compounds whose combustion is carcinogenic and sometimes gases that can be extremely harmful to the environment.

This waste is composed of polluting materials, but also of valuable materials. Indeed, it is estimated that every year, hundreds of millions of electronic devices still in working order are discarded or forgotten in a drawer.

In 2017, there would have been in France more than 100 million unused mobile phones. Many of these devices can still be refurbished and offered for sale.

The recycling of WEEE offers important possibilities in terms of the availability of secondary raw materials on the market. This is why the European Union has put in place a directive (2012/19 / EU) on electronic waste. To reduce the waste of natural resources and prevent digital pollution.

Less waste to treat also means less CO2 linked to their collection, incineration or waste storage. It is also, in short, develop its autonomy and its responsibility vis-a-vis the waste that we produce.

déchets électroniques pollution digitale

Definition and different categories of electronic waste (WEEE)

Waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) is a category of waste, consisting of end-of-life equipment that operates with electricity or electromagnetic fields. These devices are designed for use at a voltage not exceeding 1000 volts AC and 1500 volts DC. On each product, are affixed since August 13, 2005, the identification of its producer and the pictogram of the "crossed out bin" showing that this product is the subject of a selective collection (Standard EN 50419).

recyclage poubelle barrée

Following the EU directive, e-waste breaks down into the following seven categories of equipment:

  • Thermal exchange equipment
  • Monitors and equipment including screens
  • Lamps
  • Big equipment
  • Small equipment
  • Small computer and telecommunications equipment
  • Photovoltaic panels

How to recycle your electronic devices ?

First, always remember that the best waste is the one that is not produced! So, before buying, always ask yourself if this purchase is really necessary. If yes, is the electronic device you want to throw still in working order?

Before recycling you may be able to resell it, give it to friends or even to an association for people in need. You can also go to a Repair'Café, workshops organized at a local level dedicated to the repair. We can there repair an object, helped by volunteers and tools made available to us free of charge.

And if really your device is out of order, then you can opt for recycling and bring your item to an authorized collection point.

Also note that companies have a legal obligation to recover your out of service appliances when they deliver a new one.

ewaste recycling process

How does the recycling of electronic objects work ?

Electronic waste is collected, sorted and it's components are separated by material: plastic, metals, etc. The recyclable components can thus experience a second life through recycling. Sometimes the devices are upgraded, and the remains recycled. It takes about 4 to 5 devices of the same model to produce a new one because often only a few intact components are recovered on a device carcass.

Recycling is done by hand, then mechanically. Small appliances are crushed into small pieces. These fragments are then sorted and then recast according to their nature. Some devices, such as refrigerators, need to be treated separately. They can actually be very harmful to the environment because they contain gases. To give you an idea, be aware that a central unit can be recycled at 98%, a cathode screen at 80% and a washing machine at 90%.

The remains are often sent to Asia or Africa where there is a market for them. But this also poses major problems of waste management for the countries that receive them. As we can see it here in this excerpt from a BBC News report:

Why sell or buy a refurbished device?

The manufacture of electronic devices requires a large amount of energy and raw materials. Precious metals (cobalt, tin, gold and tantalum) are used for its production. Cobalt, for example, which is essential for lithium-ion batteries of smartphones is extracted in Congo. Countries where the construction and exploitation of mines has serious consequences both for human beings and for the environment.

The purchase of refurbished or used equipment is a real alternative to planned obsolescence and the mass production of new devices. A refurbished device can cost up to 30% less than new.

Another advantage is to give new life to devices still in working order that would end up in the trash or the bottom of a drawer. Also, by buying or selling used equipment, we participate in the recycling of electronic components, which require a large amount of energy and raw materials for their manufacture.