Recycling and waste management is a significant problem across the world. The electronics industry is far from the only culprit; however, although electronics waste — also known as ‘e-waste’ — makes up only a fraction of the total waste generated, it is still a growing concern.
If disposed of incorrectly, e-waste can release hazardous substances such as lead, mercury, cadmium and carcinogens into the soil, waterways and atmosphere. Here, they can quickly contaminate the area, causing significant damage to the environment as well as endangering human health.
Fortunately, there is enormous potential to turn this around as long as electronics manufacturers, suppliers and, indeed, end customers, act responsibly and take a proactive approach.
In the UK and Europe, there are various standards and initiatives in place — such as RoHS (Restriction of Hazardous Substances) and REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals) — designed to enforce and encourage the sustainable disposal of electronic devices and appliances.
Another notable directive is the EU WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) regulations. Under WEEE, any company that manufactures, distributes or sells electrical and electronic equipment must contribute to ensuring it is disposed of and treated correctly.
Unfortunately, some see compliance with these mandatory regulations as ‘enough’ when it comes to their sustainability efforts. But why not go above the bare necessities?
Whilst companies have a legal obligation to dispose of WEEE goods correctly, consumers do not. Most will take large household appliances such as fridges, ovens and washing machines to the tip. However, small household appliances and IT equipment frequently end up in general waste bins and, eventually, landfill. At EC Electronics, we have extended the use of our WEEE bin to all staff members — meaning they can easily and safely dispose of personal electrical items — to tackle this problem.
There are also many other ways to encourage recycling at manufacturing facilities.
Hazardous materials, such as aerosols and solvents, are frequently thrown in with general waste because people are unsure where to recycle them. To eliminate confusion and improve recycling rates, all materials should be separated into waste streams and colour coded accordingly. We do this as soon as products or materials come through the door, making it easier for operators to know where and how to recycle them.
However, even general waste does not necessarily have to end up in landfill — it can be recycled or incinerated. At EC, we are currently running at zero-landfill. All our general waste is converted into renewable energy which, along with other initiatives, helps to power 10,000 homes in the local Basingstoke area.
For manufacturers, it is also vital to consider packaging. We use reusable packaging wherever we can to transport products and are now looking to make recyclable packaging a condition of purchase.
Taking a ‘buy only what you need’ approach can also help with waste management. Often, there is the temptation to buy in excess because it works out cheaper in the short term. But if you then have to dispose of unused, potentially hazardous waste, what is the total cost of ownership?
A collective effort
Whilst there is a lot of pressure on electronics manufacturers to improve recycling and waste management efforts, it also needs to be a collective effort across the entire industry and supply chain. This is true across all manufacturing industries — not just electronics.
Everyone in the supply chain must be held accountable and play their part. At the legislation level, tighter auditing is required to ensure regulations are being adhered to across the board. Suppliers must demonstrate their sustainability credentials, and electronics contract manufacturers must then carry out due diligence and mandate these credentials as part of their new supplier process to guarantee compliance.
However, manufacturers are, ultimately, bound by customer demand.
With sustainability in electronics manufacturing, there is the sense that everything is back to front. But rather than finding a solution to recycling and waste management, we should instead be looking at how we can prevent the need for this in the first place. And that starts with the customer and carefully considered designs which take the compliance of each component into account.
Everything has its own carbon footprint, so it is vital to adopt long-term thinking rather than a short-sighted mindset.
As a sustainable electronics manufacturer, we understand the part we play in the industry and our responsibility to the environment — which is why we are continuously reviewing our processes and sustainability initiatives.