Copper recycling and sustainability Back Ford
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WEEE man
The Eden Project is home to WEEE Man, a seven-metre high robotic figure made from the amount of waste electrical and electronic products that an average UK citizen will throw away in a lifetime. WEEE Man has computer mice for teeth, an old washing machine for a spine, and a neck made from vacuum cleaner tubes.

There is hardly any part of life today where electrical and electronic equipment is not used. It is difficult to imagine a life without mobile phones, computers, video games, digital cameras, DVD players and flat screen TVs. You could probably add to this list; think of all the other electrical goods in your house.

None of the above could function without copper which is the best electrical conductor of all the non-precious metals and used for the connectors, microprocessors, cables and printed circuit boards. In these products the amount of copper is high.

How much copper?

  • A mobile phone contains about 16 grams of copper. In 2006, more than one billion mobile phones were sold; the equivalent of 16,000 tonnes of copper.
  • A computer contains about 0.7 kg of copper. In 2006, 240 million computers sold worldwide, which represents a total weight of 168,000 tonnes of copper.

It is easy to see out of date or broken electrical and electronic equipment as a potential source of copper that, when recycled, could help to meet growing worldwide demand. This 'hidden' copper is sometimes likened to an 'urban mine', waiting to be 'worked' to provide a source of copper for new products.

Over the past few years electrical goods have become cheaper, rapid technological improvements have occurred and fashions have and will continue to change. This results in a continual demand for the latest model with a consequent scrapping of the old, with the potential loss of valuable materials such as copper.

How many people do you know with a mobile phone more than three years old?

It is estimated that one million tonnes of waste electronic and electrical equipment, called WEEE, containing approximately 110,000 tonnes of copper, are discarded by householders and commercial groups in the UK each year. This figure includes two million TV sets. Currently 90% of WEEE escapes collection and ends up in landfill or is incinerated. Both these options lead to the possible release of harmful substances such as cadmium and mercury.

These electrical goods are often difficult to recycle and must be dealt with by specialist, licensed companies since they contain different plastics, ceramics, glass, steel and non-ferrous metals such as copper, often in close contact.

WEEE symbol
WEEE symbol indicating that the goods should not be discarded alongside municipal waste.

WEEE Directive
In an attempt to improve recycling of electrical goods, the WEEE Directive, which sets recycling targets for EU countries, was introduced in 2002, and implemented in the UK in January 2007. Electrical goods falling under this Directive bear the WEEE symbol (see image on left of page).

The key points are:

  • Producers and retailers are responsible for collecting, transporting and treating their discarded products.
  • WEEE must be kept separate from other waste so that hazardous substances can be removed.

It is hoped that the cost of implementing the WEEE Directive will encourage manufacturers to design longer lasting products that use fewer resources and hazardous materials, generate less waste and are safer and easier to recycle. This is referred to as sustainable product design, part of which involves recovery of valuable metals such as copper which can be melted and used to make other useful products.

Although it is hoped that manufacturers will absorb costs through improved design, as mentioned above, it is feared that some of the costs will be passed onto us, the consumers. Time will tell.

Photo of scrap stockpile
1 million tonnes of WEEE is discarded in the UK each year. 90% currently ends up in landfill.

Reuse schemes: it is environmentally more desirable to reuse equipment rather than recycle them. A number of schemes exist to facilitate this - for computers, mobile phones (15 million are discarded each year in the UK but only 4% are recycled) and especially fridges, cookers and vacuum cleaners, for distribution to other users.

The Directive does not put any legal responsibility onto us, the consumers. It is not illegal to put the broken mobile or toaster into the bin; this may be regarded as a weakness of the WEEE Directive. Consumers have to use their own initiative such as returning goods to the suppliers, donating them to the reuse schemes and so correctly disposing of WEEE.

Of course, if you can put off buying that new PC or the latest mobile phone then that will reduce the amount of WEEE.

Current situation
The success of the WEEE Directive is measured by collection rates expressed for each country as kg/inhabitant. The UK, lagging behind after a slow start, has a recycling rate of 1.4 kg/inhabitant/year, short of the target of 4.0 kg/inhabitant/year.

Fill in the numbers for each of these questions. Then add them up to check your answer before you click the button.
1.  What does WEEE stand for?
2. What is the approximate weight of copper in the 240 million computers sold annually?
3. Where does most WEEE end up at the moment?
4. Which property of copper is essential for electrical goods to function?

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