A Portrait of my WEEE

Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment – WEEE. There’s lots of it around, 50 milion tonnes each year are produced worldwide. Crikey.

If you do have some, and frankly who doesn’t, DO NOT leave it in the street or put it in your domestic rubbish, take it to a dump. Lead, cadmium, beryllium, and brominated flame retardants are the most famously toxic components, there are plenty of other nasties in there. Seriously, this stuff needs to get to the right place.

Enough of generalities…

I took my years WEEE to dump, it looked like this. This doesn’t include a computer I got rid of by another (safe) channel:

WEEE aren't good

Every time I take this stuff to a place where I say my final goodbyes, I think about how much of this stuff ends up wrongly in landfill, and if it does get to a recycling centre, how dangerous and risky recovering the elements from it is, and how the worst of that is done by the poor of India. So, I owe it to the world to at least have a good think about the mess I’ve made, and just what a mess it is.

‘ow bad iz ‘er?

Let’s get our hands dirty, and have a rummage around in my WEEE. Waite a minute, what’s that Pirates of the Carribean pen doing in there? The red one top middle, see it? First stop on our mini-tour:

Pirate Pen

What could be so wrong with a novelty pen that it needs special disposal? A lot frankly. The top of the pen contained an LED light, some batteries to power it and a contact switch, which when you write with it means the skull on top glow. This means that if you write with it in low light, a wobbly red dagger chomping skull jiggles about in a very distracting manner, making it a fairly useless writing implement. Anyhow, batteries, an LED, the odd wire and a contact block possibly containing the following elements:

  • Gallium
  • Arsenic
  • Lithium
  • Iron
  • Nickel
  • Tin
  • Copper
  • Indium
  • Calcium
  • Phosphorus
  • other stuff I’ve forgotten or don’t know about

This is only a probable list as I can’t really tell which particular process of LED or battery manufacture was used. There might have been a smidgen of lead in the solder too, but I’m hoping not, I hoping so hard I didn’t put it onto the list. Despite all the nasties in LEDs, they don’t really leak out, as they’re in a tidy plastic package. Check out the groovey spider diagram on page 10 of this report about the life cycle impact of LED lights.

So it might look like a “nah just throw it in the bin, how much harm can it do?”. People, take it to the dump.

Last stop:

A compact flourescent light

Remember when these were the choice only of the rich eco-obsessed? What where peoples excuses to not use them even though they were cheaper in the long term even when fairly expensive? Here’s some I recall:

  • “They give a dull light” – well they weren’t instant in the early bulbs, taking an hour to reach near full brightness, even now you have to pay more for ones that reach full brightness quicker.
  • “They take so much energy to turn them on its not worth it” – thankfully non-sense.
  • “They contain mercury, so are more dangerous environmentally that normal bulbs” – there’s some truth in that, but it still didn’t make them worse than the short lived incandescent bulbs.

Enough of my luminscence reminiscences. I’m not buying any more of them now, I’ve about three more to use and then its LED from then on. The ignitions contain:

  • Mercury (about 5mg)

Bulb electronics contain:

  • Iron
  • Nickel
  • Tin

The glass contains:

  • Silicon
  • Sodium
  • Oxygen
  • Calcium
  • and other bits

The phosphor contains:

  • Phosphorus (oh really?)
  • Zinc
  • Yttrium
  • Other fun stuff, but non with names as entertaining at Yttrium

Definitely not beryllium, cadmium, or thallium which have long been given the elbow from flourescent light production.

And that’s the end of the tour… please make your way to the local dump on your exit, and take some of our WEEE with you.

What have I learnt?

  • Getting precise ingredients for stuff is fairly impossible without in depth research. Unless its designed to be eaten in which case its obsessively documented.
  • There are lot of ingredients in WEEE.
  • Many of them are toxic.
  • This stuff really really really needs to go to a place where its treated with the fear and respect it deserves.
  • Don’t buy throw away plastic stuff with electronics in it.
  • The ingredients in our waste do seem to be getting gradually better.