Dumped electrical goods: A giant problem

This year we will discard 100 million TVs, computers, stereos and mobile phones as we're seduced by ever newer models. They could all be recycled - so why aren't they? Martin Hickman investigates

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What do you do with your old telly - the black set that now looks so dull when compared to its silver digital and widescreen betters?

And what about your old computer, a hulking grey box superseded by the sleek, exciting new Apple? Or your old drill, mobile phone or any other electrical product broken or deemed surplus to requirements in our increasingly throwaway society?

Some people dump these once-treasured items of progress in the bin, the tip, from where they make their way to landfill sites. There, their heavy metals like mercury poison the ground and raw materials are lost to future generations. Some, who cannot bring themselves to jettison items once so coveted and useful, put them in the loft. Then throw them away when they move.

Nationally, Britain's electronic mountain is crashing into landfill at an extraordinary rate. No one knows exactly how much is thrown away because it is dumped along with the kitchen scraps and broken furniture. But industry sources estimate that 100 million fridges, TVs, computers, mobile phones and other items of electronic equipment are discarded every year. They weigh 936,000 tons - the same as 2,400 jumbo jets.

The startling fact is that all of these products can be recycled using new technology; the country's first Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) recycling plant has just opened in the North-east. And none should even be entering the dumps at all. By August 2005, Britain was supposed to have introduced new European rules stipulating that all electronic waste be recycled. Under the directive, retailers of electronic goods pay for the collection and producers pay for the recycling. This has been introduced in all almost EU countries - but not in Britain. The Government's response has been slow. We are now, along with France and Malta, incurring the wrath of the EU and probably heavy fines.

Britain first announced that the directive would be in place by last March, then the date moved to August. Then December. Then, in mid-December, the energy minister Malcolm Wicks announced a review of the directive - with no end date. In its defence, the Department of Trade and Industry says it wants to get implementation right. "It doesn't seem right to rush it through just to meet a deadline," says a spokeswoman.

The delay has infuriated environmentalists. Michael Warhurst, senior waste and resources campaigner at Friends of the Earth, says: "WEEE is very important. It's a complete waste of resources to be taking these electronic items and dumping them in landfill sites. In Britain we have a pretty pathetic situation where the Government should have implemented WEEE and hasn't."

The Government says the delay is due to ongoing discussions about how to enact the directive. A study suggests it will cost between £229m and £500m - £2 to £5 for each product.

Arguments have raged about how best to collect all those old TV sets. Should there be neighbourhood collection sites for the smaller items like kettles, similar to bottle banks? Should everyone take their products to a point at the municipal dump? Should consumers return stuff to the retailers?

The electronics industry, which would have to foot the bill, is sanguine about the continuing discussion. "The cost implication is large, and poor implementation could have massive repercussions on UK businesses, consumers and the environment," says a spokesman for the Recycling Electrical Producers' Industry Consortium (Repic), which represents the makers of 80 per cent of electrical goods.

Friends of the Earth believes the mess surrounding the EU directive is symptomatic of a wider reluctance by Labour to introduce environmental measures that inconvenience business. "What we have seen here is that they keep consulting and trying to reach a consensus position, and that's not working. Governments that show a bit of leadership go to consultation and then say: 'Right, this is what we are going to do'."

Frustration is also being felt at Wincanton, the British company that has spent £4.5m installing the UK's first WEEE recycling unit near Middlesbrough. The machine takes whole computers, microwaves and so on, cracks them open and sorts the materials for re-use in new products. The breaking happens when the products fall into the machine and crash into one another as they are spun in a vortex. MeWa, the German maker of the machine, likens it to "cracking the nut".

Once broken, the components are sent into containers of ferrous metals and non-ferrous metals. The metals are shredded for re-use. The plastic is granulated for re-use. The gases inside the machines are siphoned off for re-use. On a conveyor belt at the centre of the machine workers pick off special items, like circuit boards, which contain gold.

The machine, one of about 20 in Europe, can recycle 75,000 tons of electronics a year - equivalent to 800,000 washing machines. Two hundred people armed with screwdrivers would be required to carry out the same job.

Yet local authorities are not sending truckloads of material to the plant. Until the directive comes into force, Wincanton is relying on retailers forwarding on faulty goods, and the appliances it remove swhen it delivers new products to homes.

The main business of the FTSE 250 company is delivering goods for major retailers. It hopes WEEE recycling will use up spare capacity on its empty lorries and has six depots waiting to collect products.

Gordon Scott, managing director of its industrial division and a self-confessed late convert to environmentalism, says: "The bottom line is we cannot go on as we have been going on. We cannot landfill as we have been landfilling. We have got to do something like this."

Having made a downpayment of some millions, he is hoping Britain begins to recycle its TVs and computers very soon.

Fashion beats functionality in a throwaway society

We buy more stuff and throw it away faster than at any point in our history. Electronic goods lose their lustre for consumers quicker now because of advances in technology and lower prices.

Buying a basic television has never been so cheap, relatively speaking. In the past, people would call a television repairman to fix the telly when it went on the blink. Nowadays they often pop down to the high street to buy a new set - which may not cost more than their old set did five years before.

Fashion is also playing an increasing role - functional but unfashionable products are now jettisoned for the latest model. Mobile phones are considered out of date by Dixons after just six to nine months. Mere function is not enough - flashiness is now essential.

"Our attitude to technology has changed from using something until it breaks beyond repair, to constantly replacing it because something cooler is in the market," says Tom Dunmore, editor-in-chief of the gadget magazine Stuff.

"I know of people with five or six iPods who change their mobile phone every few months. And they're not unusual."

Mark Strutt, senior campaigner at Greenpeace, says: "We consume vast amounts of electronic goods and throw them away. Mobile phones are a classic example, where they are more or less designed to be thrown away after a few years. Another prime example is the MP3 player, which does not have a battery that can be changed or recharged."

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