Recycling in the Age of Digitalization
Ökopol Institut für Ökologie und Politik
The Nature protection Federation Germany Deutschland (NABU) has commissioned the IZT with a study on the high-quality recycling of small electrical appliances. The study aims to provide NABU with a scientifically grounded basis for the forthcoming amendment of the Electrical and Electronic Equipment Act (ElektroG). For this purpose, the current recycling practice of small electrical appliances will be analyzed, existing deficiencies identified and corresponding improvement potentials for a material-oriented recycling shown. These potentials are then translated into practicable and legally secure recommendations on binding targets for high-quality recycling.
Because in present recycling mainly mass materials such as e.g. Iron, aluminum or copper are recovered, this study focuses on the so-called critical metals and flame-retardant plastics. The critical metals are very different chemical elements such as rare earth or platinum group metals, which are usually promoted as co-products only in small quantities. Their extraction is associated with considerable ecological damage and sometimes serious human rights violations. Due to their sometimes unique material properties, they are difficult to replace, making their availability a strategic bottleneck for the technological development of digital products. However, their recycling, because of their diversity and because of their low concentration in addition to very many and very different devices, is very difficult.
The flame retardants used in plastics of electrical appliances are also a large number of substances which can be very toxic to humans and the environment because they contain halogens such as chlorine or bromine, but also heavy metals.
The focus of the study is on disposable small domestic appliances from private household waste. Although these devices are becoming increasingly intelligent in the course of digitization and thus contain more electronics, only about half of them are collected separately. More than half of them either end up in mixed household waste or are illegally exported as electronic waste. But even the separately collected devices have been recycled to just ¾ in the last 10 years. The remainder was mainly thermally recycled or disposed of and less than 1% of separately collected waste was reused.
How to increase separate collection, strengthen reuse, remove pollutants and ensure high-quality recycling is therefore the analytical focus of the study. These possibilities for improvement are 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 binding recommendations takes place in close cooperation with Ökopol, the Hamburg Institute for Ecology and Politics.