It has been estimated that 50 million tonnes of electronic waste (e-waste) is generated annually, with only 15-20% being recycled. The remaining waste goes to landfill or for incineration.
Electrical and electronic waste can contain hazardous heavy metals such as lead, mercury and cadmium. When e-waste is incinerated or taken to landfill, these dangerous substances can pollute the air, ground and surface water, and subsequently poison land and sea animals. Heavy metals can also find their way into crops and drinking water. In the USA it has been estimated that 70% of the heavy metals found in landfill sites originate from discarded electronics.
The aim of the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE Directive) is to reduce the amount of electronic and electrical waste going straight to landfill.
The WEEE Directive together with the RoHS Directive became European Law in 2003 and was introduced to the UK in 2006. The Directive primarily sets targets for the collection, recovery and recycling for all electrical equipment whereas the RoHS Directive controls the material content of new electronic equipment being manufactured.
The WEEE Directive calls upon all producers and manufacturers to take responsibility for the equipment they make and sell when it eventually becomes redundant. In 2012 revisions were made to increase the collection rates. The overall aim is for the EU to be recycling over 85% of electrical and electronic waste by 2016.
The WEEE symbol is comprised of a crossed-out wheelie bin (with a single black line underneath if the equipment and goods were manufactured after 2005). Equipment that was placed onto the market before 2005 is categorised as "historic WEEE".
The recycling responsibility for this category of waste lies with the owner of the equipment. If equipment was placed onto the market after 2005, it is classified as "non-historic WEEE" and the collection and recycling responsibility lies with the producer or distributor of the equipment.
The benefits of WEEE recycling are manifold. The avoidance of disposal via landfill or incineration reduces air, ground and water pollution and has obvious benefits to the environment, and to the health of people that live or work near landfill sites.
By recycling electronic waste, we are conserving natural resources and reducing the need for manufacturing new products, which subsequently results in a reduction of manufacturing costs and also greenhouse gas emissions.
In 2005 the Royal Society of Arts took WEEE recycling to another level by using over 3 tonnes of electrical waste to build a 7 metre high sculpture known as "WEEE Man". The art project now resides at The Eden Project in Cornwall.