Reuse and recycling

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?

WWW Research

Before reading further, we recommend that you look at the DEER2 website. The Demanufacturing of Electronic Equipment for Reuse and Recycling (DEER2) project was initiated by the US Department of Defense to investigate, test and deploy technology upgrades in the public and private sectors.

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.


The diversity of materials is a real issue when dealing with post-consumer scrap. Over 300 types of plastic have been used in monitor production, and it simply is not economical to separate them all into high-value scrap. A typical board contains 15–20% copper, 7–10% solder, and about 1 kg/tonne of precious metals, such as gold, palladium and silver.

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.



At their meeting in March 2002, participants in the National Electronics Product Stewardship Initiative identified several challenging issues remaining to be resolved, including the timeframe for starting the front-end financed system, how to make the system convenient for consumers, whether it can provide incentives for product design, and how the costs and responsibilities for collection, reuse, and recycling will be shared among producers, retailers, consumers, and governments. The group also discussed the serious issue of the export of used electronics.



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:

  1. Up-cycling: producing a product of higher value than the original – golf clubs from printed circuit boards!

  2. Re-cycling: producing products of the same value as the original – turning CRT glass into new CRTs

  3. Down-cycling: producing a product of lower value than the original – for example turning ground material into fillers

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.


Barriers to sustainability are largely in the mind. For example, most economic barriers to sustainable development can be overcome by thinking big, as taking the widest and highest possible viewpoint often brings economies of scale, a phenomena which has been described as “tunnelling through the cost barriers”. Incremental improvements do not tend to be cost-effective. As someone once said “man didn’t get to the moon by aiming half-way”.

There are three dimensions to the mental sustainability revolution:

  1. Innovation (height): radical changes are required to change to a sustainable system.

  2. Systems thinking (breadth): consider the product-system as a whole not as a series of elements to be optimised individually.

  3. Long-termism (length): considering the whole lifespan of your product and operations, from material extraction through to end of life and beyond.

Kane 2002



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