Electrical and electronic waste

Old televisions and computer monitors on a pile.Click to enlarge
End-of-life electrical and electronic devices are not waste, for they contain valuable resources
Source: Gerhard Kotschik / UBA

Electrical and electronic waste contains recyclable metals and other materials; recycling them saves resources and protects the environment. But electrical and electronic waste often contains toxic substances, which if not properly disposed of, can cause pollution and health problems. It is for this reason that electrical and electronic waste is collected separately.

Table of Contents

Electrical and electronic waste in Germany

In 2010 nearly 780,000 tons of electrical and electronic waste were collected in Germany, 723,000 of it from households. This is the equivalent of 8.8 kilograms per capita and year. The remaining 54,000 tons came from businesses.

Legal framework

Proper disposal of electrical and electronic waste prevents pollution and allows this waste to be recycled. The WEEE Directive was adopted in 2003 for the purpose of instituting harmonized European regulations for electrical and electronic waste. The directive was transposed into German law via adoption of the 2005 Elektro- und Elektronikgeräte-Gesetz (ElektroG) law. An amended version of the directive, known as WEEE II, was enacted in July 2012. This directive is currently being transposed into German law via the amended version of the ElektroG law.

A mechanism known as “divided product responsibility” was instituted in Germany for electrical and electronic waste disposal operations. This means that the main obligations for electrical and electronic waste disposal fall to (a) public sector recycling companies; and (b) electrical and electronic device manufacturers. Public sector recycling companies are required to establish electrical and electronic waste recycling centres and to accept such waste at these centres free of charge. This mechanism is currently carried out at around 1,500 municipal recycling centres. Manufacturers are free to provide their own recycling mechanisms, and retailers are also allowed to take back electrical and electronic waste. Consumers are required by law to take their electrical and electronic waste to such facilities.


Manufacturers are responsible for properly disposing of the electrical and electronic waste that is brought to such facilities and bear the financial cost of product stewardship entailed by disposing of electrical and electronic devices that were placed on the market. In addition, the RoHS directive governs the use of certain environmentally hazardous substances in electrical and electronic devices. This directive was transposed into German law via enactment of the Elektrostoff-Verordnung regulation, which took effect on 9 May 2013 and places severe restrictions on the use of lead, mercury, cadmium, hexavalent chromium, polybromated biphenyls (PBB) and polybromated diphenyl ethers (PBDE) in new electrical and electronic devices.

Recycling

Upon being returned, electrical and electronic waste is sorted into five different collection groups, so as to better meet the requirements of the various devices in terms of recycling and handling. For example, large devices are separated from small ones, so as to ensure that the latter are not damaged. Refrigerators are processed separately owing to the CFCs often contained in them. Gas discharge lamps are collected separately owing to the mercury contained in them.

Recycling procedures vary greatly from one type of product to another in certain cases. For example, the refrigerant and oil mixture is suctioned out of a refrigerator’s cooling circuit, the housing is shredded, and the gases in the housing insulation (including CFCs) are suctioned out and then disposed of harmlessly.

Fluorescent (energy saving) lamps are usually shredded and then undergo a wet or dry process, during which the mercury is suctioned out, passed through active charcoal filters, and then added to sediment sludge. This in turn allows for recovery of the mercury.

Computers, computer screens and TVs are first manually dismantled, whereby trained personnel remove pollutant containing components such as batteries, condensors and cathode ray tubes. Recyclable components such as motherboards are then removed, and the remaining components are shredded so as to allow for subsequent sorting into various types of materials.

This part of the recycling process yields many different types of sorted material. Recovered metals such as iron, steel, copper, aluminum and bronze are melted down to make new metals. Motherboards and elements such as plugs with gold-plated contacts are normally sent to copper foundries that specialize in the recovery of precious and special metals. As for sorted plastic, some is reused for energy, while some is recycled.

Collection and recovery rates for electrical and electronic waste

Both the old and new WEEE directives set targets for collection, recycling and recovery rates. Since 2006, Germany has been required to submit such rates to the European Commission.
The old WEEE directive’s absolute target collection rate of four kilograms per capita and year applies under WEEE II until 2016. Germany’s collection rates from 2006 to 2010 ranged from 6.3 to 9.4 kilograms per capita. WEEE II sets relative collection rates that will take effect in 2016, whereby from 2016 to 2018 the target rate will be 45 percent of the average weight of electrical and electronic devices that were placed on the market in the prior three years. From 2019 onward, this target rate will be 65 percent. Germany’s collection rate in 2010 was more than 45 percent.

The WEEE directive and Germany’s Electrical Products Act (ElektroG) also set specific recycling and recovery rates for various device classes. The target recovery rates for non-reusable devices range from 70 to 80 percent depending on device class, whereas the target recycling rates for such devices range from 50 to 80 percent. Germany has complied with all of these rates since 2007. WEEE II also sets for the most part higher recovery and recycling rates that are to take effect in 2014 and that will increase as from 2018. 

Graph of electrical and electronic equipment Act
Graph of electrical and electronic equipment Act
Source: Umweltbundesamt schaubild_abfall-ressourcen_produktverantwortung_elektrog_schaubild_elektro-und_elektronikgeraetegesetz.pdf

Current problems

Increased collection rates

In 2010 Germany nearly attained the 45 percent collection rate that will take effect in 2016. However, in order to ensure that we reach this target and have the wherewithal to comply with the 65 percent rate that will take effect in 2019, we will need to considerably step up our efforts. This will mean in particular improving our collection rates for large household appliances, as well as TVs and computer monitors. As these apparatuses are extremely heavy, they substantially ramp up the weight related collection rates. At the same time, the data shows that there is still considerable unrealized potential in this domain. Collection rates could be ramped up by expanding the scope of end-of-life product return mechanisms, improving collection process transparency, and putting a stop to illicit collections and exporting. We also need to continue providing consumers with relevant recycling information, since many Germans don’t know that returning end-of-life electrical and electronic devices to collection points is free of charge and are unaware of the important contribution that returning such devices can make to resource conservation. Since January 2013, a smartphone app has been available that indicates the nearest collection point for electrical and electronic waste.

Improved collection of devices containing resource substances

Electrical and electronic waste recycling yields are already excellent for iron, copper and aluminum, but there is considerable room for improvement in precious and special metal recovery rates for laptops, cell phones, smartphones, computers and the like, all of which contain many resource metals. While oftentimes the amount of such metals in each individual device is minute, the overall substance stream adds up to a considerable yield. For example, a ton of cell phones contains around 250 grams of gold, whereas a ton of gold ore contains only around five grams of gold. In view of the fact that primary extraction of gold and other resource metals is often associated with an extremely high environmental load, these materials should be systematically recycled; and the first step toward reaching this goal is to improve collection rates of the devices that contain these materials. Combining this type of electrical and electronic waste with other such waste (e.g. from printers and copiers) containing fewer resources reduces the proportion of valuable materials in the substance stream.

Most electrical and electronic waste processing facilities first shred the devices and then sort them according to type of material, a process that precludes the recovery of many precious and special metals that are mixed in with other materials. Yields of such metals could be ramped up through optimization of sorting equipment and shredders. However, it is preferable for the relevant components such as motherboards and plugs to be removed manually prior to shredding, and this practice is in fact followed at many facilities for particularly valuable components, owing to the high prices fetched by the materials in question. But there is room for improvement in this arena as well. The UBA is currently conducting a study aimed at finding ways to improve collection and recovery rates for electrical and electronic waste containing valuable resource materials.

Recovery rates for specific types of devices need to be improved

While overall electrical and electronic waste recycling rates are relatively good, there’s room for improvement in terms of certain types of apparatuses such as refrigerators and visual display apparatuses, whose collection and treatment methods are in need of optimization. For example, not all of the CFCs in end-of-life refrigerators are currently recovered and destroyed; and unlawful removal of refrigerator compressors for the copper they contain cripples cooling circuits and allows CFCs to freely escape into the atmosphere. Such theft is particularly likely to occur in cases where apparatuses are put out on the street at night for bulky-waste collection the next morning. Moreover, as many recycling facilities try to cut corners wherever they can for cost reasons, all CFCs are not always removed.

Indisputably, there is also room for improvement in the recycling of cathode ray TVs, LCD TVs and computer monitors, which are often damaged or destroyed upon being collected from large containers. This in turn complicates recovery of their components, and increases the risk of contamination from pollutants, such as the mercury used for LCD background lighting. Solar panel disposal and recycling are also set to take on greater importance in the foreseeable future. Owing to the long lifetimes of solar panels, little recycling has been necessary for them; but the scope of solar panel recycling is bound to increase dramatically in the coming decades. Hence sufficient recycling capacity needs to be created for these devices, and a suitable collection system will need to be established.

Illegal exporting

According to an Ökopol study that was commissioned by the UBA, in 2008 some 150,000 tons of electrical and electronic waste was exported from Germany to Nigeria, Ghana, India, South Africa and other countries. The customs declarations for these shipments identified the contents as “used devices.” Such shipments consisted for the most part of TVs and computer monitors, many of which were in extremely poor condition. But unfortunately the aforementioned destination countries sorely lack professional recycling infrastructures. Oftentimes, young people manage to extract a minute amount of copper, aluminum or gold from broken TVs or computer screens – a procedure that jeopardizes their health and seriously pollutes the environment. The usual method for accessing the innards of computer screens is to smash them on the ground, The plastic sheaths of copper wires are then stripped away, resulting in the formation of toxic fumes. Other components are removed in acid baths, without any safety precautions of any kind. The remaining components are incinerated, deposited in improvised, unsafe dumps, or are deposited in rivers.

In the interest of remedying this untenable situation, the new WEEE directive stipulates that exporters must prove the functionality of devices declared as used before they are exported, the goal being to ensure that only intact apparatuses are exported. Reuse of such devices in the destination countries conserves resources in that the manufacture of new apparatuses is avoided. In addition to putting a stop to illegal exports, collection infrastructures and processing capacities in potential recipient countries need to be established and expanded, for the quantities of domestically generated electrical and electronic waste is also on the rise in these countries. Hence waste management processes that are safe for the environment and human health are needed.

The best way to conserve resources is to make durable products and avoid resource use wherever possible

Unfortunately, resource conservation cannot be achieved solely through efficient recycling, for technological advances in recycling are needed in order to keep up with the technological advances in electrical and electronic products. Lacking this, the raw materials contained in such devices will not be recovered optimally, or at all. For economic reasons, recycling companies are not always able to recover the entirety of such raw materials. But in the final analysis, the cause of resource conservation would be best served by simply reducing electrical and electronic waste; and the greatest obstacles to achieving this is that our consumption habits entail excessive resource use. The greater the number of products sold, the more electrical and electronic waste is generated. In other words, there’s simply no getting around the correlation between products and waste ‒ not to mention the fact that manufacturing new products is an energy intensive activity. According to Germany’s statutory waste hierarchy, consumption avoidance (and thereby waste prevention) is the top priority, followed by recycling and disposal. But this hierarchy is for the most part disregarded in practice.

Each of us can do our share by avoiding the purchase of non-essential consumer products, as this serves the cause of sustainable resource conservation, while also improving our quality of life. For if we do not ask ourselves what we really need in life, we ultimately undermine the quality of our own lives. By making needless purchases, we miss out on many other ways to improve our lives. Also, using devices and apparatuses longer reduces waste generation without imposing any significant restrictions on us. Thus before purchasing items such as computers, smartphones and household appliances, we should first ask ourselves if we really need to replace our current devices. By the same token, manufacturers should design and build their products in such a way that there is no obstacle to their providing quality service for as long as possible.