What is recycled scrap

The second life of electrical appliances

What is e-waste made of?

E-waste contains valuable resources that can be reused. Old electrical appliances such as broken smartphones and disused washing machines contain bulk metals (such as copper and iron), ceramics and glass, critical metals and an increasing number of plastics.

Pollutants such as cadmium, lead or mercury and additives in plastics such as brominated flame retardants are problematic. Pollutants and greenhouse gases from scrap pollute the environment and the climate. They can also have a negative impact on health and make it necessary to collect waste electrical and electronic equipment separately from other household waste. The separate collection also serves to recycle the valuable substances it contains.

Why is it not allowed to dispose of electrical devices in the residual waste?

Small electrical appliances such as irons, smartphones, fitness watches and coffee machines are small enough that consumers can easily and inconspicuously throw them into the residual waste bin. According to projections from household waste analyzes, over 140,000 tons of small devices incorrectly end up in the residual waste and then in the incineration. In relation to their total weight, there are far more important raw materials in small electrical appliances than in large appliances such as washing machines and should increasingly be collected and recycled.

However, the recycling quota is not geared towards these small appliances, but is geared towards mass and weight instead of ecological criteria such as the conservation of rare metals. As a result, collection and subsequent recycling concentrate primarily on resource-lighter but heavier large devices. The federal government has to make improvements.

Old electrical devices must never end up in the household waste. The symbol of the crossed-out garbage can on the device serves as a reference. Consumers have to hand in waste electrical and electronic equipment at recycling centers, in large retail stores or at large online retailers.

Unfortunately, the submission in retail stores and online retailers does not work smoothly. Experience shows that they often refuse to accept delivery or do not take back the devices free of charge and in a customer-friendly manner, even though they are legally obliged to do so. Recycling centers are not easily accessible due to their short opening times and the spatial distance. In the end, however, the burden must not lie with the consumer; instead, the return options must become consumer-friendly. NABU is calling for fixed delivery stations or containers that can be reached around the clock in the vicinity of the consumer. The economically prosperous online retailers should participate in the financing of these dispensing stations.

How much e-waste is collected in Germany - and how much is not?

In 2017, 836,907 tons of waste electrical and electronic equipment were collected in Germany. At 45.08 percent, the collection rate of 45 percent was just achieved. The collection rate of 65 percent, which will apply from 2019, will, however, probably not be achieved.

On average, more than a million tons of old electrical appliances are not recorded in Germany each year. That corresponds roughly to the weight of 100 Eiffel towers.

How does recycling work?

Of the separately collected electrical appliances, an average of around 80 percent of the device mass is recycled and around ten percent is thermally recovered. The preparation for reuse (for example the repair of an old device) and the disposal only take place in the single-digit percentage range, depending on the device type.

Recycling includes mechanical, thermal and chemical processes that allow materials to be reused. Current recycling practice essentially consists of three things: pollutants are removed manually, then the materials are mechanically shredded in several stages and then the material is separated from one another.

In addition to pollutants, a distinction is made between ferrous and non-ferrous metals, plastics and minerals. The ferrous metals are usually used in steel production while the non-ferrous metals are used in the copper process, where certain metals can be further separated from one another.

What is difficult or almost impossible to recycle?

The recycling of electrical equipment has so far been limited to bulk metals such as iron, steel, copper, aluminum and precious metals, which are easily recoverable. Rare earths, tantalum, gallium and indium have global recycling rates of less than one percent. They are only found in small quantities in smartphones, for example, and are built in a complex manner, which makes recycling costly.

The toxic flame retardants such as tetrabromobisphenol contained in older generations of small appliances hinder the high-quality recycling of plastics. Flame retardants are found, for example, in heating household appliances and in information and communication technologies.

Products with permanently installed electrical or electronic components - for example "smart" textiles or furniture - have also been part of electronic scrap since August 2018. They make recycling much more difficult, as this way, material compositions that are otherwise unusual for e-scrap get into the take-back systems. These material compositions require new processes and treatment methods and, in some cases, a time-consuming manual subsequent separation of the components, for example electrical (electronic) equipment and bulky waste.

How will e-waste recycling develop in the future?

Recovery technologies are already available. The recycling of critical metals and plastics makes ecological and human rights sensible and is urgently necessary due to the increasing demand for raw materials for future technologies. Instead of wasting material, high-quality recycling must be on the agenda.

How does Germany compare internationally?

A look at the collection rates of the EU member states shows that Germany has to get better. Other countries have significantly higher collection quantities due to more consumer-friendly take-back options. With a collection amount of 8.6 kilograms per inhabitant, Germany is just above the EU average, but clearly behind countries like Sweden with a collection amount of 14 kilograms per inhabitant or Great Britain with 14.7 kilograms per inhabitant. In addition, the collection rate of 65 percent that will apply from 2019 will probably not be achieved.

Swiss model

In the Swiss model, manufacturers, distributors and retailers meet their extended product responsibility by paying into the joint SENS foundation. This finances the transport and collection costs of the electrical equipment as well as controls at the collection points and the treatment of the equipment. This type of “financial responsibility” for money levies at a common point can also be found in several EU countries. The special thing about Switzerland is the "advanced recycling fee" (ARF), which is included in the price of the device when buying a new device and which benefits the neutral SENS foundation. The ARF is calculated on the basis of the device category and the weight of the device and thus enables the manufacturer to contribute to the treatment costs depending on the amount and type of devices sold. In Switzerland, the final user has the option of returning the old device to retailers, public collection points or directly to the manufacturer for free. This also applies if the customer does not buy a new device and is independent of the size of the sales area for electrical and electronic devices. This means that she can collect 16 kilograms per inhabitant compared to just under nine kilograms per inhabitant in Germany.

What are Germany and the EU doing?

The environmental legal framework has been progressively tightened in recent years, both at the European and at the national level. For this purpose, institutional, organizational and technical specifications for the placing on the market, the return and environmentally friendly disposal of old electronic (electronic) devices have been created. For example, mandatory collection, recovery and recycling quotas have found their way into the European Waste of Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive and the German Electrical and Electronic Equipment Act (ElektroG).

So far, however, the measures are not sufficient to ensure that all important components can be recovered through high-quality recycling and that old devices have a chance of good recycling through more efficient collection. The European WEEE directive and the German electrical and electronics law regulate the handling of old electrical devices and their removal of harmful substances, but so far there are no specific regulations and criteria for high-quality recycling.

NABU demands for the collection of old electrical appliances

  • Improvement of the collection rate of old electronic (electronic) devices
  • Introduction of a Germany-wide deposit system for particularly resource-relevant device categories within the scope of ElektroG3
  • Strengthen the implementation of the export ban on non-functional devices through improved monitoring and the networking of national and international authorities
  • Make reseller take-backs more consumer-friendly by including shops with less than 400 square meters of retail space and grocers with special offers taking back old electronic and electronic devices regardless of their size and without any incentive to buy new ones.
  • The (online) trade has to co-finance central and nationwide return locations for old electrical appliances in the vicinity of the consumer.
  • Retailers must indicate return options when purchasing devices and provide information about the disposal of old electrical devices at central points in the store and via marketing channels.

NABU requirements for high-quality recycling of old electrical devices

  • The quality of secondary raw materials should be given a higher priority when assessing the recycling of waste electrical and electronic equipment. The downcycling of secondary raw materials should be prevented by requirements for a close cycle.
  • Determine the calculation of the recycling quota based on the output from the recycling plant in the amendment to the Electronics Act.
  • The definition of material-specific dynamic recycling rates for critical metals and plastics.
  • A separation quota for flame-retardant plastics, device batteries and capacitors to safely remove pollutants and drive technological developments in the recycling industry.
  • An advance recycling fee on new devices (Swiss model).
  • A recyclate use quota for plastics is intended to increase the demand for recyclates in the electrical appliance sector as well.

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