With the holiday season rapidly approaching, thoughts will be turning to gifts for family and friends (or oneself!). Top of the list for many will be the latest iPod, computer, or other electronic gizmo. But spare a thought for what happens to those unwanted, obsolete, or broken electronic devices. Bob Rapp does just that in his column this month (see page 13) and it is an issue worth highlighting.

As of next year, electronics manufacturers in Europe will be required to take back and, as far as possible, recycle old equipment. In addition, the European Union (EU) has introduced legislation that bans the use of lead in electronics (with certain exceptions). By July 1 2006, all consumer electronics, information and technology equipment, household appliances, tools, and lighting devices produced in the EU must be completely lead free. China has also enacted similar legislation with the same deadline, while Japan has been calling for the removal of lead from electronics since the 1990s. While there is still debate as to whether lead in electronics does pose a threat to humans or the environment, there are concerns that it could leach from equipment discarded in landfills.

Since there remains much to be done to identify lead-free packaging and soldering technologies, the issue of recycling electronics becomes an even more important one in the meantime. Researchers from the Fraunhofer Institut Zuverlässigkeit und Mikrointegration in Berlin suggest that reusing electronics components from discarded systems could be more economical than the traditional approach of shredding, metal recovery, and incineration of plastic components. It could be more environmentally friendly too. Recent research from Massachusetts Institute of Technology also finds that recycling for the sake of it may not be the best policy. It may not be simply enough to recycle the materials used in electronics for any old use. “It's preferable to take a pound of recovered plastic and use it to make new components than to use it as roadbed filler,” says Randolph E. Kirchain, Jr. of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. Thinking about how recycled materials are used could enable the development of best practices for electronics recycling. It could also help manufacturers of the original equipment choose materials that will make recovery, recycling, and reuse easier.

However, the huge majority of discarded electronics devices still end up in landfills. According to figures from the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft in Germany, industrial nations generated 6 million tons of electronic scrap in 2000. In Europe, electronic waste is growing at three times the rate of normal domestic waste. This is a problem for all of us, not just those working in the electronics industry, and one where we have a choice. Do we really need that new electronic gizmo and if we do – are we going to dispose of our old electronic equipment in an environmentally friendly manner? In environmental terms, electronics are not just for Christmas, they are for life.

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(04)00540-1