Rules and regulations for producer responsibility for electrical and electronic products (‘electronics’) were introduced in 2005 to create an environmentally sustainable society, for today and the future. The aim of all recovery is to reduce the negative impact on the environment and health when new products are produced and old products end up as waste.

Producer responsibility is based on the fundamental ‘Polluter Pays Principle’ (PPP), whereby polluters must pay for the environmental damage that arises in conjunction with their activities. The objective of producer responsibility is to attain a life-cycle oriented society, where discarded products are not regarded as waste but as a new form of resource.

Electronics and batteries often contain dangerous substances and chemicals that risk being spread to both humans and the environment unless they are collected and treated properly. Furthermore, electronics contain several different materials that require a lot of natural resources to produce. This generates discharges into nature resulting in a negative environmental impact.

The use of most toxic chemicals in electronics is regulated within the EU through the RoHS and Battery Directives. However, these Directives only entered into force in 2006 and a rather large number of products are exempt from the prohibition. This means that these substances are still found in the electronics being collected. Low energy light bulbs and fluorescent lighting tubes are exempt from the Directive. These contain mercury, a toxic substance (particularly for foetuses and children) that affects, among other things, the brain and kidneys.


Electronics are made up of a complex composition of different materials, such as different kinds of plastic, metal, rubber, wood, ceramics and glass. Advanced products such as smart phones may include 60 or so elements that are mixed in various combinations to give these products their special characteristics.

Extracting and producing the materials used in electronics and batteries often requires an extensive encroachment of nature and causes high emissions and a negative environmental impact. For instance, large quantities of water and energy are used, oil is used to produce plastic, and the metals used in circuit boards, for example, are extracted from mines. These processes result in emissions of greenhouse gases, oxides of sulphur and nitrogen and other pollution that is harmful to the environment and health, both locally and globally, as the energy used usually comes from fossil fuels, and as toxic residual products are formed by mining processes. For example, 240 kilos of fossil fuels, 22 kilos of chemicals and 1,500 kilos of water are used to produce one new computer.

The best way of reducing the load on the environment and natural resources is to use your products for a longer time. If you do this, new products do not need to be produced. Then we do not need to use either new natural resources or generate emissions. For example, you would save 109 kilos of carbon dioxide if you used your old computer for three more years. You should therefore first sell your old electronics or give them away if they still function and you do not want to keep them yourself.

Take your electronics for recovery when they get so old that they can no longer be used.

When electronics are recovered, the materials already in the product are used instead of producing new materials. In this way we do not need to extract new oil to produce plastic or open new mines to find new metals.

Social issues

The production of electronics and batteries and the extraction of raw materials often take place in countries with inadequate environmental production, poor working conditions and a lack of respect for human rights.

Some of the metals used in modern electronics are extracted from minerals the mining of which fuels and finances armed conflict, acts of cruelty and the forced relocation of people. These minerals have become known as ‘conflict minerals’ and include, for example, tin and gold. These materials are essential components of today’s electronics such as smart phones.

Discarded electronics that are not recovered properly pose a major social problem globally. Agbogbloshie in Accra, the capital of Ghana, is one of the world’s largest rubbish dumps for electronics. Ghana imports approximately 215,000 tonnes of used electronics, resulting in 129,000 tonnes of electronic waste. Informal recovery is carried out at Agbogbloshie, which means that the rubbish is recovered using primitive methods with little or no protective equipment or technological aids.

Workers are therefore directly exposed to harmful substances when the valuable metals in electronics are extracted. Many working with this electronics waste at Agbogbloshie are children. The people living around the dump are also exposed. The hazardous substances enter the ground, air and water, which mean that they eventually accumulate in crops and other food. This exposure results in serious health problems such as changes to the performance of the thyroid gland which, among other things, controls your metabolism. This causes damage to the nervous system, mood and personality changes, and impairs lung function.

Circular economy

We are currently living in what is referred to as a ‘linear economy’. Products are manufactured, sold in shops and thrown away or burnt when they have been used. This follows the linear principle: Production – Use – Waste. The linear economy is characterised by a clear start and end to the economic flow. This is a system that will not function forever because the Earth has limited resources.

Unlike the linear economy, the circular economy is inspired by nature’s own cycle. The aim of a circular economy is for the capital in the economy to be rebuilt instead of ending up as waste. Products in a circular economy are designed so that they can be reused in a technical and/or biological cycle. This means that those parts of a product that cannot be composted or cannot enter the biological cycle in some other way should be recovered and fed into the technical cycle. Electronics, for example, are mainly reintroduced to the technical cycle when metals and plastic are melted down to make new products and components.

Reversing the perspectives of ‘consumers’ and ‘products’ is at the core of the circular economy. Consumers in the circular economy should be seen more as users and products as functions. People do not usually have any need to own a product, but it is their function that is sought. For example, a drilling machine is used between 6 and 13 minutes of its life, which makes it more economical and environmentally friendly to hire one when needed, and anyone who drives a car less than 10,000 to 15,000 kilometres a year would save both money and the environment by joining a carpool instead of owning their own vehicle.

This new way of thinking opens up new opportunities for both industry and private individuals that save both money and the environment. For example, Rolls Royce no longer sells its engines to the aviation industry but leases them according to the ‘Power by the hour’ concept, Ragn-Sells extracts phosphorus from sludge, Philips sells light instead of light bulbs through its ‘Pay-per-lux’ concept, and you can lease batteries for your electric cars from Nissan.