The German Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU) commissioned the IZT to conduct a study on the high-quality recycling of small electrical appliances. The aim was to provide NABU with a scientifically sound basis for the upcoming amendment to the Electrical and Electronic Equipment Act (ElektroG). To this end, the current recycling practice of small electrical appliances was analysed, existing deficits identified and corresponding potentials for improvement for material-oriented recycling pointed out. These potentials were then translated into practical and legally sound recommendations on binding targets for high-quality recycling.

Since recycling to date has mainly involved the recovery of bulk materials such as iron, aluminium or copper, the study focuses on critical metals and flame-retardant plastics. Critical metals are different chemical elements such as rare earths or platinum group metals, which are usually extracted as by-products only in small quantities. Their extraction is associated with considerable ecological damage and sometimes serious human rights violations. Due to their partly unique material properties, they are difficult to replace, which makes their availability a strategic bottleneck for the technological development of digital products. However, their recycling is very difficult because of their diversity and because of their low concentration in different devices.

The flame retardants used in the plastics of electrical appliances are also a variety of substances that can be toxic to humans and the environment because they contain halogens such as chlorine or bromine, but also heavy metals.

The study focused on small electrical appliances from private households that can be disposed of in waste bins. Although these devices are becoming increasingly intelligent in the course of digitalisation and thus contain more electronics, only just under half of them are collected separately. More than half either end up in household waste or are illegally exported as e-waste. But even the separately collected old electrical appliances were only ¾ recycled in the last 10 years. The remainder was mainly thermally recycled or disposed of and less than 1% of the separately collected WEEE was reused.

How to increase separate collection, strengthen reuse, remove pollutants and ensure high quality recycling was therefore the analytical focus of the study. These potential improvements were then subjected to a legal review in order to arrive at accurate recommendations for their concrete implementation within the existing legal framework. In particular, this transfer of the identified potential for improvement into legally sound recommendations was carried out in close cooperation with Ökopol, the Hamburg Institute for Ecology and Policy.