INTERNATIONAL: Europe Plans To Curb Electronic, Electrical Waste

As waste generation continues to spiral upward, Europeans are seeking ways to stem the flow. Electronic and electrical goods disposal is a particular area of concern because of the volumes, potential environmental damage and squandered resources. Stra-tegies being devised represent varying degrees of departure from a throwaway society and range from increased recycling to a reorganized flow of materials.

In Germany, waste products such as computers, telecommunications e-quipment, washing ma-chines and microwaves amount to approximately 800,000 tons a year. In the United Kingdom, an estimated 120,000 photocopiers, 800,000 PCs and 1.3 million television sets will require disposal in 1995, according to the Warmer Bulletin. A study conducted by the British Warren Spring Laboratory found that 400,000 tons of household appliances are trashed each year.

The environmental impacts from disposal depend on the method. Mull-Magazin reports that thermal de-struction of electronic waste can re-sult in dioxins and furans, hydrogen halides, mercury and cadmium emissions plus dioxins, furans and metal compounds in the residue. Liquid chemical treatment can produce sludges with concentrations of metallic hydroxides (copper, lead, tin, zinc, nickel) plus waste-water containing ammonium salts, sulfates, nitrates, nitrite and chloride. Landfilling can result in emissions of volatile organic halogen compounds and leachate containing metal and organic compounds as well as PCBs.

The trend toward miniaturization has led to the use of smaller quantities of materials, but often in coated or composite form so that they are difficult to recycle. Also, the rare metals being introduced in electronics are more scarce and commercially important to conserve through recycling. The obstacle, Michael Henstock from the University of Nottingham reports, is not technical feasibility but economies of scale.

Europeans are turning to product design to simplify reclamation of saleable materials and disposal of residuals. Material substitution, for example, can detoxify the shredder residues from obsolete and discarded goods.

As Walter Stahel of the Product-Life Institute in Switzerland points out, longer utilization is not a matter of making products "indestructible" but of designing them for easier dismantling and technological upgrading. By means of modular design, components and interfaces can be standardized wherever possible and dismantled for reuse. Re-ducing the number of materials used also enhances recyclability.

Until designs are improved, dismantling and increased use of spares remain labor and time in-tensive. Thus, processes such as shredding followed by metal extraction are still common.

The German trade as-sociation for the private waste in-dustries , Bun-desverband der Deutschen Ent-sorgungswirtschaft (BDE), calls recycling centers for e-lectronic and electrical scrap a "wave of the future." BDE member companies are investing in facilities and are bringing plants on line where mi-croelectronics scrap is disassembled rather than shredded (see table).

Although a bill requiring manufacturers in Germany to take back their scrap electronic products did not pass in 1993, manufacturers, in anticipation of it eventually passing, are taking action on their own. A nationwide system is being organized to transport and distribute used communications e-quipment to centers for disassembly and materials separation. Similarly, electronics companies in the Nether-lands are working to establish a collection, transport and recycling system for their used products.

IBM in Milan, Italy, IBM U.K., Digital Equipment Corp. in the Netherlands and the German washing machine manufacturer Miele are among the companies reported to have become active in recycling their products. Since December 1990, the City Sani-tation Department of Hamburg, Germany, has been collecting electrical wiring and plugs for recycling and copper recovery.

There are also those who advocate a more comprehensive ap-proach toward a low-waste society. Calling for a new line of thinking to replace "use and discard" practices with a circulating economy, the Swedish Waste Research Council is promoting research into environmentally sounder product development, recycling and disposal. This is research and development that Stahel calls "progress oriented" rather than "fashion driven."

Some see the solution in a new commercialization strategy which Stahel describes as "selling utilization instead of selling goods." Werner Schenkel, Germany's Fed-eral Environment Ministry, sketches how a recycling economy, in which streams of materials flow in cycles, could develop into a "leasing society," where people are more interested in using a product than owning it. He sees a socially and ecologically oriented free market economy as a way out of the paradox of western industrial society, sated with belongings while overflowing with waste.