What happens during the laptop recycling process?

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Computers are an inherent part of many people’s work and recreational lives these days, but what happens to your old laptop when you decide to get a new one?

A typical laptop comprises a complex mix of materials, including a substantial amount of lead, making laptop recycling a challenging endeavour.

It’s clear that laptops should never be thrown away with domestic waste for disposal in landfills, but how does the laptop recycling process work? Here’s a quick guide to how recyclers recover materials safely for reuse:

Waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) regulations came into force in 2007 that had significant implications for companies dealing with such waste. As a result, companies that use electronic equipment frequently contract out their WEEE disposal to specialist firms that ensure compliance with these regulations. Some major laptop manufacturers also run their own take-back programs.

Once a laptop is given to a recycler, there is a good chance that it will live on in some way, but it may not even get to the disassembly process. Some laptop recycling companies team up with charities and other organisations to ensure that, once cleansed of the data they hold, laptops can be given a second life. Of course, anything that extends the durability of a laptop can only be beneficial for the environment.

Companies that dispose of WEEE for corporate customers also frequently refurbish viable laptops and resell them to consumers. This gives private individuals access to cheaper equipment, often with a warranty, while also eliminating the need for the substantial energy and materials that are consumed when building a new unit.

Should a laptop make it through to the recycling process, it is disassembled and any viable parts are identified. Depending on the particular recycler, viable parts from multiple laptops may be combined to create a working unit, or they may be sold to wholesalers, who can in turn sell them to those that need them. This might include independent computer shops that repair out-of-warranty laptops.

The remaining parts are then sorted according to whether they contain toxic or precious materials. Batteries and capacitors, for example, usually contain poisonous metals and need to be disposed of appropriately, while the flat screen of a laptop may need to be manually disassembled to remove mercury.

The remainder of the laptop recycling process involves sorting materials, recovering whatever can be recycled—such as plastic, glass, and metals—while safely disposing of the unusable hazardous materials. For a variety of reasons, this can sometimes be quite a challenge; for example, some laptops use brominated fire-retardant insulation. If improperly incinerated, this can release dangerous environmental toxins called dioxins that accumulate in the fatty tissues of animals and work their way up the food chain to humans.

While it can take substantial resources to build a laptop, you can see how good laptop recycling can maximise its usable life, provide the opportunity to reuse its parts and materials, and ensure its safe disposal when there is no other option.

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