Much electronic waste is difficult to recycle and the quantity is growing. For instance, new products now entering the market in France amount to 2.1 million tonnes a year. In the USA, more than 10 million computers are being discarded each year. The breakdown by weight of an the materials in a average computer are: metal casings, 58%; cathode ray tubes, 4%; cables, 2%; recoverable components, 2%; precious metals, 3%; resale, 3%; internal reuse, 2%; batteries, 1%; plastic casings, 25%.
In 2002, a total of 11 countries worldwide had takeback mandates for electronics.
Japan mandated recovery only for televisions, appliances, air conditioners, commercial PCs and laptops. The actual recovery rate was not reported – merely the percentage of material recycled that was collected.
After delays due to industry protest (notably from US based trade associations), two European "take-back" directives for electronic wastes ("WEEE" or waste electrical and electronics, and "RoHS" or Restrictions on Hazardous Substances) were expected to become law in 2003. The intention of the directives was that producers of electronic and electrical equipment assume financial and legal responsibility for their products throughout their entire life cycle; it also established a framework for Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR). These far-reaching directives require takeback of anything with a cord or battery (from toys to tools to televisions and computers), as well as many gas-powered appliances. Banned were four heavy metals (lead, cadmium, mercury and hexavalent chromium (chromium VI) and three brominated flame retardants.
Full financial responsibility rests on manufacturers or distributors to ensure recovery. Companies may opt for either collective or individual takeback schemes for new waste. Collection organizations already exist in six European countries. Industry has estimated these directives will cost electronics makers between EUR 2.5 and 7 billion per year. Other industry estimates claim it will cost about EUR 40 billion to gear up the infrastructure to recycle all electronics. A small group of companies in Europe have supported the concept of individual company responsibility, so that they can reap the benefits of their own green designs. The balance of industry prefers the collective responsibility approach. Anticipating the WEEE Directive, three French trade associations recently signed a voluntary agreement on electronics takeback with the association of mayors. A European electronics retailers group is working on similar agreements in many other European countries.
Mandated industry-run collection systems for old electronics appear to be reaching higher recovery rates than where government manages the collection process. Figures from Europe show that 50-80% of information technology equipment is being recovered in three countries with existing takeback mandates: the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Norway. The figures, provided by privately-run collection groups, include both consumer and commercially-generated equipment. Most have a "visible fee" to consumers – but the money is provided directly from manufacturers to collection organizations. However, in Denmark, where local governments are expected to ensure collection and recovery, the recycling rate was about 30% in 2000, according to government figures.
According to a 1994 survey by the German environmental organization Bund, most computer manufacturers used recycled plastics, have banned CFCs and solvent-based paints, use snap-together construction (for easier dismantling), mark new plastic parts for recycling and reuse old components for repairs. Four have free take-back schemes in Germany. However, specialist recyclers are rare in many countries and spot prices for recycled materials are volatile. Also old products now reaching the end of their lives were never designed to be recycled. To disassemble an old computer can take one and three-quarter hours. To cover the costs, Hewlett Packard in Germany charges DM10 for each returned unit; for monitors, where the lead and other metals in the cathode ray tube causes particular recycling problems, the charge is DM25.
Because it costs a few cents a kilo to dump, landfill prices would have to rise by 10 to 20 times for the economics of recycling to change. One specialist recycling centre in France sends less than 5% of the products to landfill; in 1990 the figure was more than 30%. Disc drives are reused as spares, circuit boards are refined to recover the precious metals, plastic is stripped from copper cables, old microprocessors and memory chips end up in electronic toys, high-grade plastics are recycled, low-grade mixed plastics are burnt in a nearby cement kiln for their energy content. The recovered copper, precious metals and components are sold to help pay for the costly treatments of batteries, cathode ray tubes and mixed plastic. in 1994, the operation was still at "break-even" point and and its longer-term future was not certain.
In 1993, a US computer recycling company was handling 180,000 kg of computers and other electronic gear a month, 4 times the volume of the previous year; annual revenue was expected to be $3 million. Scrap computers are pulled apart and mined for metals from aluminium to gold. The semi-conductor chips are plucked out and sold to parts wholesalers and computer maintenance shops. The rest was dumped.
To address the issue of electronic product disposal in municipal landfills and incinerators, AT&T Wireless announced in 2002 a new programme which allows consumers to drop off all brands of unwanted cell phones, accessories and batteries at collection boxes at approximately 800 retail stores in the USA. Material processing will include reuse, recycling and some redeployment. Material that can be refurbished and reclaimed will be resold. Batteries will also be collected, sorted and recycled as far as possible.
Reducing the environmental impact of TVs is to make them more energy efficient rather than extending their lives.
One way to reduce the amount of electronic waste is to make the products upgradable. However, such products tend to be more expensive to design and produce, and more bulky as well. In this context, upgradeability would be actually an impediment to greater environmental friendliness because it would discourage people from buying more energy-efficient products.