With technological innovations, new applications and shorter product lifetimes there is an ever increasing quantity of waste electrical and electronic equipment. The environmental pressures associated with this are well documented and include material and energy losses and an increase in air, water and land pollution from waste treatment methods. The incorrect disposal and treatment of electrical and electronic equipment also poses threats to human health, particularly when involving illegal exports.
Addressing issues of repair, reuse and recycling
One way to address this is to increase product longevity; either by extending a product’s first life or addressing issues of repair, reuse and recycling. Reusing products, and therefore extending the use of that item beyond the point where it is discarded by its first user is preferable to recycling or disposal, as this is the least energy intensive solution, although it is often overlooked.
The EU Circular Economy Package recognises the importance of extending product lifetimes and includes repair and reuse of products in its action plan to ensure products reach their optimum lifespan. If targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions are to be reached, then reuse needs to be included as part of a whole life cycle approach.
A strong second hand market-place exists, with charity shops on most high streets, car boot sales and online auction sites maintaining popularity and regular TV shows featuring both buying and selling at auction.
Inadequate repair infrastructure
However, the reuse of electrical and electronic equipment products remains low due to inadequate infrastructure, lack of repair networks and products. Local authority collection systems are better suited for handling waste than handling goods and preserving reuse potential. Retailer delivery staff are trained to handle goods carefully.
So, do we need a radical rethink on how we move unwanted, still useable items to the second-hand market place? Is there a case for changing our approach to producer responsibility and insisting that producers finance collection for reuse, and additionally, drive consumer choices for reuse, repair and remanufacture; whilst addressing the costs of recycling and disposal?
There are opportunities for producers, waste management companies and local authorities to make both repair and reuse habitual, whilst these require changes to householder behaviour change through raising awareness, they also require investment in infrastructure and logistical operations. Is it time to insist that more products are designed to have longer lifetimes? That they can be disassembled, repaired and reused before being recycled?
Business models providing opportunities
This would not necessarily be a poor strategy for businesses, there are business models that provide opportunities to retain ownership of valuable products and components through leasing, servicing, repair and re-sale.
While it is choices made by consumers that will ultimately determine the success of such ventures, there is huge potential for the reuse of goods and materials to deliver social and economic and environmental benefits. The EU Circular Economy Package, the Scottish Circular Economy Strategy and the national reuse target set by the Spanish Government are examples of governments recognising that second-hand goods should be a good value mainstream option and are working towards making reuse easier for consumers.
In environmental terms, reuse ought to be more common than recycling and energy recovery, with both the financial and environmental costs of simple refurbishment of some products being a fraction of original manufacturing costs. If we are going to be serious about living in a Circular Economy we need to recognise the value of our waste and ensure resources are kept in the economy for longer, slow down the use of valuable raw materials and ensure that products are reused and materials are recycled rather than landfilled.