Computer and Electronics Recycling is the separation and disassembling of computers and other electronic devices and parts. Although most recycling methods, donation, re-use, and repair are all part of environmental responsibility, such behaviors are not technically green. However, recycling computers and electronics is an essential component in the fight against waste and pollution. There is currently no alternative to the disposal of electronic devices that contain toxic materials or are over five years old.
The process of recycling computers and electronics is complex. Many states and countries have laws requiring businesses to recyclable, electronic waste, and some even have programs designed to compensate manufacturers for their contribution to this critical activity. While not every country needs businesses to participate in recycling computers and electronics, many companies and consumers do.
Computers and electronics can be broken down into categories: unsoldered motherboard and parts, pre-owned laptops and computers, used or refurbished computers, printer cartridges, motherboards, memory modules, hard drives, optical drives, video game cartridges, and other media. All of these can be recycled depending on the method of recycling. Computers and other electronics can also be broken down further into three broad categories: cartridges, devices, and motherboards. The recycling of devices can include packaging and disposal. For example, hard drive and DVD recycling for notebook manufacturers require the melting of the metals in the hard drives to separate the copper and silicon, which are then recycled.
There are two basic methods used to separate materials from computers and other electronic devices in computer and electronics recycling. Methods exist that use energy, chemicals, or radiation to remove waste. These methods are sometimes effective, but, as in recycling plastics, they are subject to environmental impact. Techniques such as ionization or electrolysis are expensive and cumbersome and may not be cost-effective enough to replace the revenue lost from traditional electronics recycling. Methods such as heat compression, compressed air, or heat paint may be less costly but still much less effective than heating or compressing solid materials like plastics.
Computer and electronics recycling requires comprehensive planning. The process is best suited for large-scale usage in developing countries where income from recycling can be readily secured. However, local communities can also take part in the recycling process with environmental agencies, local businesses, and individuals.
The Computer and Electronics Recycling Act of 1994 requires all U.S. manufacturing equipment that contains lead or cadmium to provide an appropriate disposal site. This was the first of several environmental laws intended to assist in the recycling of electronic components. For example, the law specifies the types of metals that can and cannot be used in electronic devices. It also specifies the amount of each metal that can be recycled. The metals allowed in computer and electronic components are gold, silver, copper, tin, nickel, zinc, indium, selenium, gallium, ferric iron, titanium, and boron.
The European Union and other developed countries are pursuing a global approach to combat e-waste dumping that would amend the Convention on Environmental Protection Agency of the United States (COPUUS). The COPUUS had been designed to serve as a standardization body for all member states of the union to achieve uniform environmental quality standards across the board. The European Union has signed the Basel Convention on the Management of Electronic Devices and Materials and the European Council on Environmental Policy initiatives. These bodies have been instrumental in drawing up electronic waste recycling guidelines and encouraging member states to implement them.
Those companies that do not comply can still benefit from reducing the volume of e-wastage through recycling. Recycling programs can help minimize the environmental impact of electronic and computer manufacturing processes. Companies that are already processing hard drives or that plan to do so should examine how their existing disposing of hard drives could be improved to minimize their environmental impact through recycling. Recycling programs are vital for small businesses that may not afford the cost of disposing of hard drives that would otherwise sit in their holding room is wasted. Also, by reducing the volume of e-wastage through recycling, the computer and electronics industries can help protect natural ecosystems by reducing the number of non-recycled materials put into landfills.