Independent (UK)  [Printer-friendly version]
February 27, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: As the electronic age progresses, the
environmental costs grow exponentially. If full-lifecycle
manufacturing were embraced, the vast majority of e-waste could be
recycled. An average desktop computer holds 14 pounds of plastic, 4
pounds of lead, 8 pounds of aluminum and smaller amounts of arsenic,
mercury and beryllium.]

By Martin Hickman

This year [in Britain] we will discard 100 million TVs, computers,
stereos and mobile phones  as we're seduced by ever newer models. They
could all be recycled - so why aren't they?

What do you do with your old telly - the black set that now looks so
dull when compared to its silver digital and widescreen betters?
And what about your old computer, a hulking grey box superseded by the
sleek, exciting new Apple? Or your old drill, mobile phone or any
other electrical product broken or deemed surplus to requirements in
our increasingly throwaway society?

Some people dump these once-treasured items of progress in the bin,
the tip, from where they make their way to landfill sites. There,
their heavy metals like mercury poison the ground and raw materials
are lost to future generations. Some, who cannot bring themselves to
jettison items once so coveted and useful, put them in the loft. Then
throw them away when they move.

Nationally, Britain's electronic mountain is crashing into landfill at
an extraordinary rate. No one knows exactly how much is thrown away
because it is dumped along with the kitchen scraps and broken
furniture. But industry sources estimate that 100 million fridges,
TVs, computers, mobile phones and other items of electronic equipment
are discarded every year. They weigh 936,000 tons - the same as 2,400
jumbo jets.

The startling fact is that all of these products can be recycled using
new technology; the country's first Waste Electrical and Electronic
Equipment (WEEE) recycling plant has just opened in the North-east.
And none should even be entering the dumps at all. By August 2005,
Britain was supposed to have introduced new European rules stipulating
that all electronic waste be recycled. Under the directive, retailers
of electronic goods pay for the collection and producers pay for the
recycling. This has been introduced in all almost EU countries - but
not in Britain. The Government's response has been slow. We are now,
along with France and Malta, incurring the wrath of the EU and
probably heavy fines.

Britain first announced that the directive would be in place by last
March, then the date moved to August. Then December. Then, in mid-
December, the energy minister Malcolm Wicks announced a review of the
directive - with no end date. In its defence, the Department of Trade
and Industry says it wants to get implementation right. "It doesn't
seem right to rush it through just to meet a deadline," says a

The delay has infuriated environmentalists. Michael Warhurst, senior
waste and resources campaigner at Friends of the Earth, says: "WEEE is
very important. It's a complete waste of resources to be taking these
electronic items and dumping them in landfill sites. In Britain we
have a pretty pathetic situation where the Government should have
implemented WEEE and hasn't."

The Government says the delay is due to ongoing discussions about how
to enact the directive. A study suggests it will cost between £229m
and 500m - 2 to 5 for each product.

Arguments have raged about how best to collect all those old TV sets.
Should there be neighbourhood collection sites for the smaller items
like kettles, similar to bottle banks? Should everyone take their
products to a point at the municipal dump? Should consumers return
stuff to the retailers?

The electronics industry, which would have to foot the bill, is
sanguine about the continuing discussion. "The cost implication is
large, and poor implementation could have massive repercussions on UK
businesses, consumers and the environment," says a spokesman for the
Recycling Electrical Producers' Industry Consortium (Repic), which
represents the makers of 80 per cent of electrical goods.

Friends of the Earth believes the mess surrounding the EU directive is
symptomatic of a wider reluctance by Labour to introduce environmental
measures that inconvenience business. "What we have seen here is that
they keep consulting and trying to reach a consensus position, and
that's not working. Governments that show a bit of leadership go to
consultation and then say: 'Right, this is what we are going to do'."

Frustration is also being felt at Wincanton, the British company that
has spent £4.5m installing the UK's first WEEE recycling unit near
Middlesbrough. The machine takes whole computers, microwaves and so
on, cracks them open and sorts the materials for re-use in new
products. The breaking happens when the products fall into the machine
and crash into one another as they are spun in a vortex. MeWa, the
German maker of the machine, likens it to "cracking the nut".

Once broken, the components are sent into containers of ferrous metals
and non-ferrous metals. The metals are shredded for re-use. The
plastic is granulated for re-use. The gases inside the machines are
siphoned off for re-use. On a conveyor belt at the centre of the
machine workers pick off special items, like circuit boards, which
contain gold.

The machine, one of about 20 in Europe, can recycle 75,000 tons of
electronics a year - equivalent to 800,000 washing machines. Two
hundred people armed with screwdrivers would be required to carry out
the same job.

Yet local authorities are not sending truckloads of material to the
plant. Until the directive comes into force, Wincanton is relying on
retailers forwarding on faulty goods, and the appliances it remove
swhen it delivers new products to homes.

The main business of the FTSE 250 company is delivering goods for
major retailers. It hopes WEEE recycling will use up spare capacity on
its empty lorries and has six depots waiting to collect products.

Gordon Scott, managing director of its industrial division and a self-
confessed late convert to environmentalism, says: "The bottom line is
we cannot go on as we have been going on. We cannot landfill as we
have been landfilling. We have got to do something like this."

Having made a downpayment of some millions, he is hoping Britain
begins to recycle its TVs and computers very soon.

Fashion beats functionality in a throwaway society

We buy more stuff and throw it away faster than at any point in our
history. Electronic goods lose their lustre for consumers quicker now
because of advances in technology and lower prices.

Buying a basic television has never been so cheap, relatively
speaking. In the past, people would call a television repairman to fix
the telly when it went on the blink. Nowadays they often pop down to
the high street to buy a new set - which may not cost more than their
old set did five years before.

Fashion is also playing an increasing role - functional but
unfashionable products are now jettisoned for the latest model. Mobile
phones are considered out of date by Dixons after just six to nine
months. Mere function is not enough - flashiness is now essential.

"Our attitude to technology has changed from using something until it
breaks beyond repair, to constantly replacing it because something
cooler is in the market," says Tom Dunmore, editor-in-chief of the
gadget magazine Stuff.

"I know of people with five or six iPods who change their mobile phone
every few months. And they're not unusual."

Mark Strutt, senior campaigner at Greenpeace, says: "We consume vast
amounts of electronic goods and throw them away. Mobile phones are a
classic example, where they are more or less designed to be thrown
away after a few years. Another prime example is the MP3 player, which
does not have a battery that can be changed or recharged."

2006 Independent News and Media Limited