Extending the life of unwanted computer equipment (Guest Blog by N2S)

N2S are leaders in tech recycling. This blog outlines their vision for a circular economy.

According to the Material Focus report Business Electrical Waste - Challenges And Opportunities (July 2022) it is estimated that 200k tonnes of e-waste - the equivalent weight of 16,666 double decker buses - is being discarded incorrectly by UK businesses each year. This figure relates to electricals ending up in organisations' general waste, it would generally be considered to be smaller electricals, less so things like fridges. Clearly there is an urgent need to help make managing unwanted tech easier and simpler for businesses.

There is a planned Defra consultation on waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) regulations later this year and it is intended that the findings from the Material Focus report will be fed into the upcoming consultation. n2s - which specialises in sustainable Technology Lifecycle Management are a sponsor of Defra's e-Sustainability Alliance (DeSA), an organisation looking at how we can better measure and reduce the environmental impact of technology.

Mimi Moll, IT & Telecoms Sustainability Lead at n2s discusses three key areas that standout from the report: WEEE metrics and reporting It is time to extend the life of tech and create clearer reporting. Currently the metrics set around WEEE for businesses are focused too much on recording end-of-life technology rather than items that are reused. Defra has also identified that the current obligations system for businesses is difficult for producers and waste operators to administer, leading to losses from the formal system as well as various reporting and evidence gaps.

The pile of denial

Hoarding is a major issue for businesses. The lack of clarity means it may feel easier to store away unwanted tech. Preventing benefits such as residual value through reselling devices safely and securely when they are no longer needed. From an environmental perspective all of the materials such as plastics and precious metals are left sitting dormant whilst the earth is being mined for more and more resources. A computer that is no longer in use has so much potential whether through reuse, recycling, or mining the precious and rare earth metals found within. For instance a Printed Circuit Board (PCB) contains a whole host of precious elements, up to 40 in fact, and these boards can measure from a few inches square to a few feet. And as much as 7% of the world’s gold may be contained in e-Waste (UN report: Time to seize opportunity, tackle challenge of e-waste).

A solution: an infinite economy

There is a solution to this growing problem. Not all e-waste is waste. In today’s world, people throw away devices that are perfectly usable, and could be wiped of private data, refurbished and sold on. That is to create an infinite economy which would significantly reduce the environmental impact and maximise residual value from the resale and refurbishment of IT & Telco devices, through to innovative ‘urban mining’ solutions to mine metals from e-waste. Chemical scientists around the globe and in the UK are working on solutions to help recover these elements from our unwanted devices. The output is a host of metals and minerals ready to be reused as if they had been freshly mined from the ground.

This has been a key focus of investment for the research and development team at n2s. They have been developing a patent-pending biotechnology process. Which uses 'bacteria’ to separate metals and precious elements from the plastic and silicone found in circuit boards. Every device that is saved and recirculated means one less device that needs to be built from scratch – alongside the elimination of the carbon emissions associated with that process. Now more than ever, we need a nationwide collaborative approach. This report is crucial and a catalyst to transform how electrical waste in business is tackled.

Author: Mimi Moll, IT & Telecoms Sustainability Lead at n2s


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