National conversation needed about disposal of old mobile phones and washing machines: Marcus Brew

When asked to think about the topic of waste and recycling, our brains would likely conjure up imagery such as mountains of surplus food or seas of single-use plastics, probably because this is what is often shouted about the most within the media. But what about other equally important waste streams such as waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE)?

Every year in the UK alone, an estimated two million tonnes of WEEE items are discarded by households and businesses.

This can include everything from IT equipment and mobile phones to small and large domestic appliances like washing machines and toasters.

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It’s the fastest growing waste stream in the world and one of the biggest waste challenges we face, not only on a regional or national level but a global one too.

Marcus Brew gives his expert insight. Picture: Craig BroughMarcus Brew gives his expert insight. Picture: Craig Brough
Marcus Brew gives his expert insight. Picture: Craig Brough

It stems from populations becoming hungrier for the latest devices and innovations to fuel our fast-paced lives — both in and out of the work environment.

As a result, a growing number of electrical appliances are being stowed away in drawers gathering dust, or — worse still — thrown away in the rubbish bin and sent to landfill.

But how many of these electronic waste items could be re-used by someone else? Or processed for recycling? These are the questions that businesses and individuals everywhere need to ask themselves before adopting a ‘throwaway’ mindset.

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While electrical items may be unwanted by one person, they’re often in perfect working order — reuse should be prioritised in the first instance. But if they’re broken and can’t be refurbished, this doesn’t mean they’re destined for the scrap heap.

There is more to ‘redundant’ WEEE than meets the eye. Many electronic items are made up of a variety of component parts — including metal, glass, plastic, ceramic, and precious metals — which are effectively ‘locked inside’, until the correct, compliant processing equipment liberates and segregates them, ready for recycling.

But with some of these materials containing hazardous substances — such as mercury and cadmium — it is vital they are processed at a licensed facility, to prevent them from entering the general waste stream and posing a potential health risk.

I am a firm believer, however, that ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’. This topic is not talked about enough by the Government. As a result, it isn’t at the forefront of the general public’s stream of consciousness.

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There’s undoubtedly a mass-scale education and awareness piece that’s needed, to make the importance of recycling WEEE known — not only to reduce the volume of such items entering landfill but to protect our planet’s health too.

And while compliant processing of WEEE may be the job of the waste operator, it is the responsibility of every business and individual to be aware of what is possible and ensure such items are not thrown in the bin.

This should be done in line with the Waste Hierarchy model, which outlines the preferred order of managing waste — prevention, reuse, recycling, recovery, and disposal.

Along with government action, it’s vital that waste and recycling professionals like myself play their part in spreading the word that our ‘waste’ should be indeed seen as a ‘resource’. It is only when public awareness and industry innovation work in tandem that ambitious sustainability targets can be met, and the chance for a truly circular economy is truly within grasp.

Marcus Brew is the MD of industrial waste shredder specialist, UNTHA UK.