Is e-waste Replacing Plastic as the World’s Biggest Waste Problem?

Posted by Celine Coleman, Marketing Director, Clover Imaging Group EMEA on Jun 23, 2020 10:00:00 AM
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A new product or device is launched, and we need to have it. When we buy it, we get rid of the old version. That cycle of consumption has made EEE (Electrical and electronic equipment) waste the world’s fastest-growing waste stream. The world produces 50 million tonnes of e-waste every year, worth an estimated €55 billion. That is expected to grow to 120 million tonnes by 2050 based on current levels.  Currently, only 20% of electronics are recycled, the remaining 40 million tonnes are either placed in landfill, incinerated or illegally traded. The largest global producer of e-waste is the USA, with China following closely behind. The two countries combined are responsible for around 32% of global electronic waste.  In Europe we do somewhat better – while e-waste is growing by 2%  year on year, we do recycle up to 40%.

This growing amount of e-waste poses a huge threat to our environment and health.  EEE contains metals and components, such as mercury and lead, that, if not extracted and handled properly, can leak into the soil, air and water and cause contamination. E-waste accounts for approximately 2% of waste in landfills yet is responsible for around 70% of the toxic waste found there.

Is Recycling Enough?

Recycling these devices is an obvious choice as the first step to keep these devices out of rubbish heaps. In 2005 the EU introduced the WEEE directive that mandated producers to collect and recycle e-waste.  However, it’s what happens after the product is collected where the problem lies.  We already know the majority end up in landfill, but a considerable amount is exported illegally.  The European Environment Agency estimates that Europe still illegally exports 1.3m tonnes of e-waste each year most of which will end up in the poorer regions of our world. This issue was compounded in 2017 when China stopped all imports of foreign-produced waste, leaving a lot of developed countries reeling as how to manage their waste.

Recycling alone is not the answer.  Waste prevention and using waste as a resource must be the backbone of a transition to a green, sustainable economy. The recent European Green Deal proposes a circular economic action plan (CEAP) to be at the heart of its drive to control our waste problem.  The circular economy functions by reusing waste and prolonging the lifespan of resources. At present, many products break down too quickly, cannot be reused, repaired or recycled, or can only be used once. This linear pattern of production and consumption (“take-make-use-dispose”) is not conducive to creating sustainable products.  The new proposed legislation will address the need to improve product durability, reusability, upgradability and reparability, addressing the presence of hazardous chemicals in products and increasing the recycled content in products. It will also aim to restrict single-use and premature obsolescence of a products lifecycle.

How does this effect printer supplies?

Printer cartridges come under the scope of WEEE but as many as 375 million units in the USA alone are discarded in landfills each year.  Clover has been practising circular economics within its waste management process for over 20 years creating a sustainable remanufactured cartridge and saving millions of used cartridges from landfill where they can take up to 1000 years to decompose. Since 2009, Clover has collected over 436 million cartridges and diverted 206 million KG of material from landfills (Based on 2009-2018 Clover Sustainability Report figures). Clover remanufactured printer cartridges are empty cartridges collected for reuse and run through our patented remanufacturing process where we restore them to like-new condition. Clover cartridges offer the same performance and page yields as single-use cartridges but with half the environmental impact and seventy-nine percent less materials consumed (Data from a 2010 Clover-funded Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) conducted by RIT. LCA data has not yet been publicly released).

New build/counterfeit printer cartridges on the other hand, which are subject to the same WEEE regulations as OEM and remanufactured cartridges, cannot similarly become part of the circular economy because they cannot be remanufactured under the same conditions as OEM and previously remanufactured OEM cartridges to yield a second life. Many new built cartridges do not comply with REACH, RoHS or CE in Europe. In addition to the products unsuitability for recycling there are potential health and safety risks. Certain types of new build cartridges have been tested and hazardous chemicals have been detected in the plastics such as DecaBDE, a brominated flame-retardant chemical, prohibited in manufacturing or importing into the European Union since March 2019 according to EU’s REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals) regulation.  In summary, new built cartridges cannot participate in a circular economy process and must be disposed of as waste thereby contributing to the waste crisis and all its negative environmental impacts.

Author: Celine Coleman, Marketing Director, Clover Imaging Group

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