Recycling e-waste in the Netherlands: New publication on circular economy of e-waste

There is a wide range of strategies for creating a circular economy. Recycling may not be at the top of the list, but it has its part to play. And within recycling, it is important to understand what the recycling of electronic waste, or e-waste, involves, and what benefits it can bring. This short article presents a brief outline, but it also links to a longer research article that fleshes out the picture.

E-waste and the circular economy in the Netherlands

The circular economy is high on the environmental policy agenda in the Netherlands. It’s a broad topic that’s rightfully been getting a lot of attention—and one area within it deserves special attention: the recycling of electronic waste, or what is known as e-waste.

One way to reduce resource consumption and energy use, facilitate the re-use of product components, and extend the life of a product is through smart product design. But regulations also have a part to play: they aim to maximise the re-use of discarded equipment that contains valuable resources. Even though recycling is not among the most effective strategies for a circular economy – not using resources in the first place is clearly more helpful – recovering materials can lead to considerable environmental and economic benefits. We are therefore proud to present a new research article, “The Circular Economy of E-Waste in the Netherlands: Optimizing Material Recycling and Energy Recovery”. The article takes an in-depth look at the environmental benefits of collecting and recycling electronic waste.

Proper monitoring is key

The non-profit organisation Wecycle sees to the collection and recycling of this category of waste on behalf of 1,500 producers and importers in the Netherlands. Since 2009, PRé and Wecycle have been working together to measure the environmental benefits of these efforts. The aforementioned article describes how the recycling of electronic waste, as well as the removal of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) from  refrigerators and freezers and its destruction, helped cut emissions.

From discarded e-waste to resources

According to the principles of the circular economy, a lot of materials that used to be regarded as unrecoverable waste can now be turned into a resource (see the figure below). In 2016, 80% of discarded electronic waste in the Netherlands was recycled into useful materials. A further 17% was incinerated, and some of the energy from the incineration was recovered.

Recovery from Recycled E-waste
In 2016, 80% of electronic waste in the Netherlands was recycled (material recycling), and a further 17% was burned (with energy recovery). | Source:

Environmental benefits

Moreover, in 2016, the recycling of e-waste and the removal of CFCs and HCFCs from discarded electronic products led to a reduction of about 416,000 tonnes in the amount of CO2 equivalents released over what would have been released without such recycling and removal. Although the use of CFCs and HCFCs in refrigerators and freezers is being phased out, thus leading to smaller reductions than before in the amount of CO2 that has not been emitted, the removal of CFCs and HCFCs still accounts for most of the reductions in CO2 emissions that have thus been achieved. The recycling of materials has seemed particularly beneficial in the case of  both smaller and larger household appliances, such as refrigerators, freezers, tumble dryers, and washing machines. The aforementioned article distinguishes among six categories of this kind of waste and, for each category, compares the results for 2016 to those for each year from 2009 to 2015.

Recycling for circular economy is not only about ‘closing the loop’

Recycling for circular economy shouldn’t be a stand-alone ‘closing the loop’ goal by itself. There are several reasons to explore opportunities to contribute to the circular economy as part of a strategy:

To meet the European demand for materials

Even if everything that could be recycled were recycled, we would still be unable to meet the demand for resources. Since economic growth driven by ever-increasing material consumption is unsustainable, we obviously need a solution that decouples the former from the latter. The most effective strategy needs to be implemented in a way that is both sustainable and measurable (such as through KPIs) in order to ensure progress.

To prevent harm to the environment and human health from unregistered low-standard recycling (shredding)

When disposal protocols are not meticulously managed, there are risks of environmental pollution and damage to human health caused by a variety of toxic substances.

To help, in however small a way, in the fight against global warming

Though there is no shortage of collection facilities in the Netherlands, a significant amount of e-waste has been found in the country’s municipal dumps over the last few years. The discarding of this category of waste in municipal dumps should be prevented, so proper recycling and appropriate removal and destruction of CFCs and HCFCs can take place.

To boost employment

Recycling creates more jobs at higher income levels than does adding to landfills or incinerating waste. Initiatives exploring such opportunities have already been set up by Wecycle at several locations in the Netherlands.

Recycling for Circular Economy

Ways forward

It is important to keep in mind that there is a wide range of strategies for creating a circular economy, and that some strategies are more effective than others. Recycling and energy recovery are actually at the bottom of the list. Alternative strategies that focus on preventing the creation of waste in the first place can offer even more advantages. Life-cycle thinking is a powerful tool for pinpointing where the greatest benefits can be had, while considering the landscape or the environment in which the benefits are to be pursued.

We’d love to hear from you

The aforementioned article offers more information and useful recommendations. And please do get in touch should you have and questions or comments. We’re always happy to brainstorm with you about how you can meet your sustainability goals, including those enabled by the new circular economy.

Laura Golsteijn

Senior Consultant

I am eager to increase the environmental awareness of our society, and I believe that everyone can contribute to a more sustainable world, every day. At PRé we provide companies with both the knowledge and the tools to improve their products and services. I am excited to work for an organisation that is involved in developing sustainable initiatives.

Elsa Valencia

LCA Data Expert

I believe we all have expertise that we can use to do something to improve our relationship with the world, and that we need to use scientific methods and tools that objectively guide us when making decisions. Sustainability and sustainability metrics have been the main topic of my career. I enjoy helping clients from different backgrounds and regions to understand how they can tackle today’s challenges with integrated tools that go beyond only technical solutions.

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