What happens to old technology? In many cases, it gets stacked in a cupboard or storeroom until someone decides to have a major clear out and it then ends up being dumped in a skip. But old electronic kit can contain hazardous materials, not to mention precious metals and other things that can be recovered and recycled, so we really should do better by our old kit.

It’s estimated that nearly 50 million tonnes of e-waste will be generated in 2018. China is the biggest source, followed by the USA. The amount of waste we generate per head, however, is partly down to the affluence of the country. The Scandinavian states are among the highest producers of e-waste per capita. European nations, however, are more likely to recycle their old electronics than other countries. The UK currently recycles around 45 percent of its e-waste, compared to only 25 percent in India, for example.

WEEE

The Waste of Electrical and Electronic Equipment recycling (WEEE) covers anything that has a plug attached or is powered by batteries. Since 2003 when WEEE became law, electrical items have displayed the crossed out wheelie bin logo that indicates they shouldn’t be placed in general waste.

So what can be recycled under WEEE? Computers and laptops can be recycled or sold on, as well as all of peripherals like monitors, printers, scanners, keyboards and mice. Other kit such as modems and routers and telephones can be recycled too.

Under WEEE rules, retailers have to provide an option to recycle old equipment when you buy new, so they will often have a drop off point, trade in option or some comparable facility. There are also specialist firms who will deal with large quantities of kit, so if you are re-equipping an entire office, they are a good option. If you’re disposing of a computer that is still working, you may be able to donate it to charity.

What can be recovered?

A significant percentage of electronic equipment contains precious metals including gold, silver and copper that can be recovered. Other parts of the equipment like steel or aluminium cases can be recycled too. Even plastics are often reduced to a granular form and melted down to be turned into something else.

Some of the materials used in computer and electronics can be harmful and need to be treated as hazardous waste, this includes substances such as lead and mercury. This is why it’s important that these devices shouldn’t be allowed to end up in landfill but should instead be properly dealt with.

Safe electronic waste disposal

While it’s important to recycle your e-waste, it’s also vital to make sure you dispose of the equipment safely and securely. Computer and other equipment contains data that may be sensitive and therefore needs to be properly erased before you get rid of them.

For computer systems, simply deleting files or even formatting the hard drive is not enough as data can still be recovered using specialist tools. You need to make sure that the disk is properly wiped and overwritten to ensure that information cannot be recovered. Even on disks that are not working, recovery may be possible. In these cases the disk needs to be physically destroyed, there are specialist companies that can do this for you and provide a certificate that the disk has been properly destroyed.

Even with other electronic devices, it’s important to take precautions. Routers and networking kit, for example, should have a reset to their manufacturer’s defaults carried out. This ensures that you don’t inadvertently give away passwords and other details that could allow access to your network. Similarly, any Internet of Things or other devices that have been attached to the network – security cameras, smart TVs, etc – also need to be subjected to a reset before they are disposed of.

It’s also important that you select a reputable recycling organisation to deal with your waste. In the past e-waste has often been shipped to third world countries where it is dealt with in unsafe conditions that may be harmful both the environment and to workers.

There’s no sign of the growth in the volume of e-waste being produced slowing down, so it’s important that we all take the problem seriously and ensure that we deal with our waste in a responsible way.