What kind of electronics can I recycle?

WEEE and recycling

In the future, consumers should find it easier to dispose of old electrical and electronic equipment. The federal cabinet passed a corresponding draft law in March 2015. The aim is to collect more of these old devices so that even less will end up in the residual waste in the future than before. Illegal exports are also to be curbed. Old devices are often referred to colloquially as "electronic scrap". But they are not worthless waste: valuable metals can be recovered from them. The remaining materials must be disposed of in an environmentally friendly manner. Before the so-called Electronic Equipment Act (ElektroG) can come into force, the Bundestag and Bundesrat have to discuss and vote on it. The final second reading in the Federal Council is expected to take place in September 2015.

The Electronic Equipment Act had to be revised because there were new requirements from the European Union. In August 2012, a new EU directive on waste electrical and electronic equipment came into force, the so-called WEEE. The EU member states are obliged to implement the guidelines in national law. The means by which they do this is up to the individual countries. Among other things, the WEEE directive is intended to help combat the illegal export of dangerous electrical appliances. Because some of these end up in illegal and uncontrolled landfills abroad, especially in Asian and African countries. Raw materials, including rare and valuable metals, are extracted from the devices under conditions that are extremely harmful to health. The guideline is also intended to promote recycling and recovery, among other things by giving consumers easier options for returning old devices.

Exported environmental hazard

How dangerous it is when people do not handle waste properly has repeatedly been taken up in media reports in the past. UNICEF also draws attention to this with the UNICEF Photo of the Year 2011. It shows a boy on a toxic waste dump in Agbogbloshie - a place near the Ghanaian capital Accra. There, people smash monitors and burn housings to extract valuable metals from the scrap. In some cases, highly toxic substances such as heavy metals, bromine compounds, dioxins and other chlorine compounds are released. The landfills therefore represent an immediate danger to the population and the environment. On the other hand, they form the basis of life for many people who secure their survival by selling the raw materials found.

Illegal market for old devices

It is forbidden to export hazardous waste to developing countries. Waste electrical and electronic equipment for private use actually has to be handed in at the municipal collection points and disposed of by the manufacturer, according to the previous electronic equipment law of 2005. However, not all equipment is collected and recycled as intended.

According to a study commissioned by the Federal Environment Agency (UBA), around 1.8 million tons of new devices came onto the market in Germany in 2006. In the same period, 754,000 tons of old devices were collected in the statutory recycling system. In 2010 there were 780,000 tons of old devices, of which around 723,000 tons came from private households. That corresponds to 8.8 kilograms per inhabitant per year.

There are several reasons for the difference between the amount of new and discarded equipment. First of all, when looking at a year, the different life cycles of the devices have an impact. However, some of the devices also end up in the residual waste, many are stored at home - and some end up on the illegal market. In 2008, a total of around 155,000 tons of electrical appliances were exported from Germany to Asia and Africa.

Part of this amount was old devices that were illegally declared as used, which actually had to be disposed of in accordance with the rules applicable in Germany. Exporters often mark end-of-life equipment as functional so that it does not fall under the hazardous waste rules. It is assumed that the majority of the electrical appliances that should actually be disposed of have passed the legally prescribed collection system.

If the devices were actually functional, it would make sense to export them. If they continue to be used, the devices produced with a lot of energy and material expenditure have a longer service life.

Good reasons for recycling

In 2008, televisions made up the largest share of exports to Asia and Africa at 38 percent, followed by monitors and refrigerators and freezers. All other devices common in private households - for example cell phones or computers - are accordingly often found on the used market and in the waste.

Electrical and electronic products have in common that, in addition to a high proportion of plastic, they contain many metals such as copper, aluminum, precious or technology metals. The old devices accumulated in Germany in 2008 contained an estimated 1.2 tons of silver, 240 kilograms of gold and 120 kilograms of palladium.

It also makes sense to reuse the products, as their manufacturing processes are particularly complex. This applies, for example, to the processing of raw materials such as rare earths. In addition, some raw materials are extracted under ethically and ecologically unacceptable conditions. For example, the raw material coltan required for the production of the metal tantalum often comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In their ore deposits, child labor and forced labor are the order of the day. In addition, parties to the civil war use profits from coltan mining to finance weapons. The transport and manufacture of the devices are also complex and consume energy. The raw materials and individual parts of electronic products often come from different continents.

Gold mine cell phone

The example of a cell phone makes it clear what is in electronic equipment and how proper disposal can work. A mobile phone typically consists of the following components (the values ​​may differ depending on the model, year of production and functions):

  • 56 percent plastics, especially housings, keyboards or connecting elements
  • 25 percent metals in electronic and mechanical components
  • 16 percent glass and ceramics, for the most part in the display
  • 3 percent other substances (liquid crystals, flame retardants)

The metals are especially valuable. Iron, aluminum and copper make up around a quarter. Nickel, lead, silver, but also gold, lithium and zinc are found in small quantities. The components must be carefully separated during disposal, because some of them may contain dangerous substances. Until a few years ago, cell phone batteries contained the harmful cadmium. This has been banned in the EU since 2003, but it can still be found in some old models. In some cases, hazardous substances can also be produced if the devices are improperly disposed of, for example when the plastics are burned.

With regular disposal, cell phones are dismantled into their individual parts: Displays are dismantled because glass and liquid crystals can be reused. Batteries are disposed of as old batteries. Individual components can also be recycled, for example nickel, lead, cadmium, mercury, silver, iron and copper. The rest of the device is shredded. Metals can also be separated out in a targeted manner, for example using magnets. In specialized recycling companies, lead, nickel, gold, bismuth, tin, antimony or indium can also be extracted from small components.

What to do with the old devices?

In Germany, the law on electrical and electronic equipment regulates how proper disposal should take place. It is to be changed in 2015, the cabinet decision of March 2015 is the first step on this path. The previous version from 2005 stipulates that private consumers can hand in old devices free of charge at collection points in cities and municipalities. There are around 1,500 of these municipal collection points. The manufacturers are obliged to take back the devices from the disposal points, to recycle them and to dispose of them properly.

In addition, manufacturers can voluntarily offer take-back systems. Many dealers are already taking back devices on a voluntary basis. There are collection campaigns and collection boxes from various companies and initiatives, especially for cell phones. There are alternatives to disposal of cell phones that are still functional: For example, they can be passed on as a donation to environmental organizations such as NABU e. V. or Deutsche Umwelthilfe.

Consumers are obliged to use one of these return options. The devices must not be disposed of in the residual waste bin.

The new version of the draft law in Germany from March 2015 is based on the 2012 EU directive on waste electrical and electronic equipment, the WEEE directive. Its aim is to ensure that more old devices are collected and recycled. Smaller devices should therefore be able to be returned directly to dealers. The guideline is also intended to help combat illegal exports so that waste no longer ends up in dangerous landfills in Asia and Africa: in future, only checked, functional used equipment may be exported. In the future, exporters should prove that they are shipping used equipment that is working properly.

The new electrical law serves to create concrete legal regulations in Germany based on these requirements. Large stores are expected to take back old devices in the future when a new device of the same value is purchased. This applies to shops with more than 400 square meters of retail space. Smaller electrical devices with an edge length of less than 25 centimeters have to be taken back in these shops without buying a new device.

With the new regulations, the take-back by the dealer is in many cases an obligation. In this way, many more collection points are created so that consumers can find more return options in their area. In the future, lists of all collection points available nationwide are also to be published.

Related Links

Federal Environment Ministry: Electronic Equipment Act (ElektroG) - questions and answers

Federal Environment Agency: waste electrical equipment

Federal Environment Agency: Export of waste electrical and electronic equipment - facts and measures

Federal Environment Agency: Electrical devices are used less and less

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