The rapid pace of technological change in the field of electronics has made appliances for homes and office equipment both affordable and widely used. The extreme growth rates but also ever increasing obsolescence rates result in large quantities of electrical and electronic equipment being added to the waste stream. This Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) or e-waste for short, includes computers, entertainment electronics, telecommunication equipment, but also cooling appliances, tools etc. that are discarded.
The large quantities of e-waste being generated have spawned a new industry: e-waste recycling. E-waste recycling partly is a lucrative business because electronics consist of valuable materials such as gold, copper but increasingly also plastic, glass, etc. Many OECD countries have implemented or are in the process on implementing regulations and guidelines for the collection and recycling of e-waste in their countries. In the backdrop of the Basel Convention, these member states have developed state-of-the-art technologies and processes that substantially reduce the risks involved in the treatment of e-waste. Their experiences over the years in grappling with the growing mountains of waste have led to efficient and economically viable systems being developed for managing e-waste.
One should not mistake, however, profitable e-waste recycling of certain appliances such as mobile phones with the profitability of an entire e-waste management system. For instance none of the more than 30 collective European e-waste management systems represented in the WEEE-Forum is able to finance its entire operation with the intrinsic value of the contained material only. They all require in one way or another additional funds to finance certain steps in the recycling chain.
Through this e-Waste Guide, it is hoped that the e-waste situation in developing and transition countries can be improved by adapting experiences gained with the many installed systems such as those of SWICO , SENS, SLRS and INOBAT in Switzerland. But also local and international initiatives which aim to improve the e-waste management situation - for instance the UN hostested StEP-Initiative (Solving the E-waste Problem).
The Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs seco has commissioned the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Testing and Research EMPA to design and implement the global programme "Knowledge Partnerships in e-Waste Recycling". In the context of the Swiss e-Waste Programme this e-Waste Guide is developed and maintained by the Empa e-Waste Team.
Empa is the multidisciplinary research institute for material science and technology of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) domain. It is specialised in applications-oriented research and development, as well as in offering services to help solving demanding problems in the fields of sustainable materials science and technology. The Technology and Society Lab within EMPA analyses the impacts of technological developments on society and the environment and is leading EMPA's e-waste activities. It is a pioneer is monitoring and control for e-waste management systems as the technical control body for setting recycling and disposal standards as well as auditing material flows through the Swiss system. Empa is also leading several projects in developing and emerging economies in Asia, Africa and Latin America to build capacities for e-waste management in areas of policy & legislation, business & financing and technology & skills. It has been instrumental in founding the StEP Initiative to develop a global knowledge sharing platform on e-waste.