All products come to the end of life, and we have to decide what to do with them. The main opportunities are reuse, remanufacture and recycle, and the first of these is rightly promoted. The second you will be familiar with through the work carried out to recycle toner cartridges which is actually a remanufacturing operation. Recycling in its traditional sense, whether scrap yard or bottle bank, is generally favoured, but is not necessarily the right option.
In order to explore this in more detail, we first need to consider how recycling might be carried out. Faced with a monitor, how would you proceed to disassemble it effectively into its constituent materials?
Review the techniques used there, and try and list the important issues when it comes to planning the recycling of electronic waste.
The first issue is that of practicality, not only the sheer logistics of organising the activity, but also the challenge of dealing with many and diverse materials – we have already seen this in relation to printed circuit boards.
Most of the balance is thermoset epoxy and glass, with less than 10% ceramic and other materials. If the value of the components does not merit their removal, ceramics, thermoset epoxies, and glass are not recyclable into any valuable form, which means that the only valuable materials are the metals, at about 20–30% by weight. The epoxy has calorific value, but if incinerated at low temperatures, bromine analogues of dioxins form and these long-lasting substances are in some cases suspected carcinogens.
Alan Rae, The costs of going green, PC Fab, March 2003
We then have the consideration that recycling will cost money, not least to collect waste material and concentrate it for cost-effective delivery to a specialist processing plant. There seems little doubt that, despite the EU’s attempts to make the producer pay, the costs of managing used electronic products will eventually be factored into the overall purchase price of new equipment.
So far we have promoted recycling, but have to ask ourselves whether recycling is really what we want to do if our aim is environmental sustainability. Unfortunately, ‘recycling’ is a much-abused term of which three sub-types have been identified:
It has been commented that down-cycling merely slows the progression from resource to waste rather than replacing it, and sustainable systems need down-cycling to be balanced by up-cycling. However, creating sustainable systems is not something that is necessarily easy to do, as this next quotation illustrates.
There are three dimensions to the mental sustainability revolution: