Electronic rubbish, and computer equipment in particular, is a rapidly expanding stream of UK waste. Low prices allow consumers to replace "gadgets" often, and rapid technological change means there are always newer, better, more powerful products on the market. The result is a burgeoning computer waste mountain. Up to 20 million “obsolete” PCs are discarded annually in the USA alone.

Why is it important to recycle computer equipment?

Also known as e-waste, discarded computer equipment comprises monitors, printers, hard drives and circuit boards. Such items should on no account be thrown out with your household rubbish because they contain toxic substances, and are effectively hazardous waste. E-waste often ends up in the developing world, and the UN’s Environment Programme is alarmed by the amount of electronic goods which is improperly disposed of overseas. There is increasing concern about the pollution caused by hazardous chemicals and heavy metals in Africa, Asia and South America.

What’s in my PC?
Material Proportion
Ferrous metals
Non-ferrous metals
Electronic boards

A single computer can contain up to 2kg of lead, and the complex mixture of materials make PCs very difficult to recycle.

New legislation

New legislation came into force in 2007 to cover waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE). The regulations have significant implications for those who treat or recover WEEE and stipulate that users must store, collect, treat, recycle and dispose of WEEE separately from other waste. It is now a requirement that you obtain and keep proof that your WEEE was given to a waste management company, and was treated and disposed of in an environmentally sound way. You can read the full regulations online.

Disposal options

You can dispose of computer waste by returning the product to the manufacturer, taking the item to a professional waste disposal facility or donating the goods to a non-profit organisation.

Manufacturer disposal

Increasingly, manufacturers of electronic goods incorporate e-waste management into their environmental policies and operate consumer recycling schemes. Dell, for example, cover the cost of home pick-up, shipping to the recycling centre, and recycling of any obsolete equipment. The goods are “de-manufactured”, and sorted according to type or material. Materials like steel and aluminium are then re-cycled to make new products, from car parts to plastic toys. Meanwhile non-reusable substances are disposed of in an environmentally sound manner. Another big brand, Hewlett Packard, recycled over 74 million kilograms of electronics in 2005. Since beginning the program 20 years ago, HP has expanded recycling operations to more than 40 world regions. These schemes help to:

  • reduce of the volume of waste which ends up in landfill sites
  • cut down on the amount of raw materials needed for the manufacture of new products
  • make recycling convenient for the consumer

Professional waste disposal

The process is the same as with a manufacturer scheme, but you may have to pay for collection and disposal of the waste. There are quite a few waste disposal cowboys out there, so you should check that the company:

  • complies with WEEE and other relevant legislation.
  • can provide details of their own Waste Carriers License, and details of any overseas partners they may use. Check with Basel Action Network for details of those countries which have not signed up to a convention to prevent hazardous waste trafficking.

Donation to charity

A number of non-profit organisations collect electronic equipment including computers and printers, either for reuse or for de-manufacture and recycling. Recipients pay nothing for the equipment or buy it at a heavily discounted rate. Developing countries benefit most from these schemes, but recipients also include UK community groups.

If you decide to donate your PC to charity, be sure to check that:

  • Appropriate security measures are in place to prevent unauthorised access, alteration or accidental loss or destruction of personal data, which is a legal requirement under the 1998 Data Protection Act. Reformatting the hard drive is not sufficient to permanently destroy all data.
  • The organisation has a strategy for waste management once the PC becomes obsolete. It’s all very well sending computers to Nigeria to help train students in IT, but what happens when the equipment becomes obsolete? Is there a programme for disposal or will your donation just end up as e-waste in a backyard 3000 miles away?

In the UK there are now more than fifty non-profit organisations which collect, refurbish and supply PCs. A well-established choice is Computer Aid International, which has distributed over 150,000 PCs in over 100 countries, making it the global leader in not-for-profit supply of IT equipment.

OFFERS/Ex-IT is a a London based reuse/recycling project which has been set up to assist students, people on low income, Voluntary Sector Organisations (VSO’s), small start-up businesses to gain access to low cost ICT and office furniture. The project has been in action since 1996, and as a whole has helped over 5000 VSO’s, small businesses and students to gain access to low cost, reliable ICT and office fittings.

The project’s main objective is to divert WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) and surplus office fittings and furniture away from landfill and back into reuse. They make recycling very easy by even arranging collections of computers, consumer electronics and office furniture.

Digital Links is a registered charity and provides an IT disposal service to British schools and companies. Digital Links redistributes the computers to schools and community projects in the developing world. At present they have already distributed over 75,000 computers in just five years.

Cambridgeshire-based Reboot specialises in recycling donated IT equipment securely to EU WEEE directive and Environment standards. The organisation is a social enterprise offering a range of services from refurbishing a laptop to recycling the parts of multiple computers, priding themselves on a zero landfill policy. By accepting donations Reboot is able to provide a safe working environment and volunteering opportunities for people with learning disabilities and those who have difficulties finding work within the region.