Where does tech waste go?

As organisations up and down the country take steps to sharpen up their environmental efforts, we recently quizzed a client — recycling specialist UNTHA UK — about one of their specialist subjects. Where does tech waste go? Marcus Brew, take it away…

E-waste is currently considered the fastest-growing waste stream in the world. That means that our redundant appliances — computers, phones, and other electronic goods that we use at work and home — are posing one of the toughest challenges to reuse and recycle, on a global scale.

At UNTHA UK, the processing of WEEE — waste electrical and electronic equipment — is therefore a very hot topic.

But despite the scale of the problem, with more than two million tonnes of WEEE produced and discarded every year in the UK alone, very little gets recycled. In today’s day and age, this is difficult to comprehend, especially given the number of high-value materials that commonly reside within every redundant piece of kit. 

Yet there are a couple of key reasons why recycling rates are so staggeringly poor.

In the tech sector, e-waste often contains confidential data, and with stringent regulations governing the protection of this sensitive information, some people consider it ‘safer’ to simply leave unused equipment in a cupboard, gathering dust, rather than handing it over for recycling — or better still, reuse by someone else.

This leads me on to the next challenge — education. There are a number of WEEE specialists — authorised treatment facilities (ATFs) — in the market who can compliantly destroy data on a device, refurbishing them where required so they can go on to have a long and useful life with someone else. Where they are no longer fit for purpose, the ATF will prioritise the responsible recycling of this ‘waste’. This may be a speciallist area of recycling, but a lack of public awareness as to what is possible, restricts progress. We all have a job to do to talk about this more, and I see that the compliant handling of redundant kit is something that Vapour promotes on its own Technology as a Service page, which is great to see.

In terms of the process adopted to actually recycle redundant kit, some operators concentrate on mechanical breakdown methods — in other words, taking laptops and other appliances apart by hand. While this is a valid approach, it is typically time, labour and cost intensive. A quicker, more efficient and effective method is to shred the appliances — which is where we come in.

Our shredders liberate the multiple component materials that would otherwise remain ‘locked’ inside. Once they are shredded down to a smaller fraction size, they can be segregated with ease, which means plastics and different types of high-value metals can then be separated for resale and recycling. 

So, instead of these materials going to waste, or gathering dust in a cupboard, they can go on to begin their next life, in another product. This process is often unseen of course, but the more we talk about it, the more we realise just how interested people are in what goes on. ‘How it’s made’ type programmes are really popular on TV aren’t they, so why not ‘How it’s un-made’?

We live in an era of constant innovation, with more powerful, productive and ‘must have’ devices coming onto the market all the time. The desire for ‘new’ is therefore unlikely to subside, which means the volume of WEEE will also remain high. We might not be able to change consumer — or business — demand for the latest products, but we can and should talk about what happens to these goods, when we no longer find them of use.


Marcus Brew is managing director of UNTHA UK, an industrial shredder specialist, headquartered in North Yorkshire but with clients throughout the country.

Posted By Vapour Comms Team

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