It has been forecast that the electronics industry will produce an annual total of 52 million tonnes of electronics waste (or ‘e-waste’) by the end of 2021.

In a time when technology is constantly evolving, electronic devices and appliances are being replaced and updated at an increasing rate. Although this means big business for electronics manufacturers and OEMs, it also has significant implications for the environment.

When electronic devices end up in landfill, not only do they take up a lot of space, but they also contain materials which can release harmful toxins into the water, air and surrounding environment.

That is why the Waste Electric and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) regulations became law in January 2014 — to deal with the associated requirements for the recovery, reuse, recycling and treatment of WEEE.

So, what exactly is WEEE, and why is it so important for organisations to ensure their e-waste disposal policy is up to scratch?

What is the deal with WEEE?

Every year, approximately two million tonnes of WEEE items in the UK alone are thrown into bins and landfills when they could have just as easily been recycled. If these current trends are allowed to continue, the world is expected to reach 120 million tonnes of e-waste per year by 2050 — an alarming statistic considering that, on average, only 20% of e-waste is currently documented as being properly recycled.

The WEEE initiative refers to practically any household or non-household end-of-life equipment that has a battery or plug. It aims to monitor and regulate the creation and disposal of e-waste and its impact on public health and the environment.

Not only do individuals and businesses alike stand to face a hefty fine for not complying (up to £5,000 at a magistrates’ court or an unlimited amount from a Crown Court), but the implications for the environment over time could be disastrous if not averted.

It is the responsibility of all retailers and distributors to comply with guidance for disposing of electronic components and devices — from items as small as printed circuit boards (PCBs) to larger appliances like TVs and fridges.

What does WEEE mean for the electronics manufacturing industry?

The material composition of electronic products can vary hugely. Electrical items, especially older products, can contain substances such as lead or mercury that are hazardous to human and environmental health when not disposed of correctly.

And this is not just an issue for the environment; many electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) products contain valuable materials that are wasted in the process of improper disposal. In fact, it is thought that around 7% of the world’s gold is contained in e-waste! Correct procedures should, therefore, be followed to disassemble items safely and extract valuable elements and recycle or reuse other materials where possible.

However, recycling these items may require highly technical methods to ensure proper recovery of materials, such as thermal, chemical, magnetic or electrostatic recycling technology. Because of this, electronics manufacturers have been known to cut corners when it comes to proper disposal and recycling of electronic goods in favour of more cost-effective solutions, which negatively impact the environment and waste useful materials.

But now that people across the globe are placing more emphasis on the importance of sustainability and environmental conservation, it is vital that manufacturers make every effort to tackle their contributions to this issue.

Coming full circle

E-waste is now the fastest growing waste stream in the world — yet remains a largely undervalued resource. But with the rise of the Internet of Things (IoT) and connected devices comes the necessity for a revolutionised, more ‘circular’ electronics manufacturing strategy. New products must be designed with materials suitable for reuse, durability and safe recycling, whilst waste from previous EEE items should be properly disposed of or recycled.

For electronics manufacturers and OEMs driving sustainable practices in the industry, it is imperative that the issues presented by e-waste are considered at every stage of the manufacturing process.

At EC Electronics, we are passionate about reducing our impact on the environment. We are currently running at zero-landfill, and we have extended the use of our WEEE bin to all staff members as part of our sustainability initiatives.