Understanding WEEE: Categories, Characteristics, Challenges and Opportunities

Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE), or e-waste is a growing concern in our modern digital era. But did you know that WEEE recycling is much more complex than other waste streams? That’s because it’s a broad waste stream that encompasses various types of electronic products, each with unique materials, values, and challenges. This blog will guide you through the world of WEEE, helping you gain better insights.

Types of EEE that become WEEE

E-waste, or WEEE, includes a diverse range of typically broken, outdated, or otherwise unwanted electronic and electrical equipment (EEE). Let’s break down the types into eight categories:

1. Large Household Appliances

Including washing machines, refrigerators, air conditioners, ovens, and more.

2. Small Household Appliances

Such as microwaves, toasters, electric fans, coffee machines, hair dryers, and the like.

3. Office and Communication Equipment

Items like cellphones, computers, laptops, printers, and USB devices.

4. Consumer Electronics

This category houses television sets, video games, cameras, audio amplifiers, and related products.

5. Lighting Equipment

Various lighting items, including LED lights, fluorescent lamps, lasers, and others.

6. Electric and Electronic Tools

Tools like drills, saws, gardening tools, sewing machines, etc.

7. Security and Healthcare Equipment

Including CCTV systems, household alarms, medical equipment, fire detection systems, and more.

8. Mixed Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment

A mixed category with items like solar panels, generators, inverters, batteries, and other assorted components such as cables.

Old, muddy and discarded washing machines and other large appliances.

Find a full list of items on our Recycling page.

Complexity of WEEE – What is in it?

The broad spectrum of products that comprise EEE highlights the importance of understanding what becomes e-waste and the need for appropriate recycling and disposal methods. But it’s not just the sheer diversity of different electrical electronic goods that adds to the complexity; the materials within each of these items vary widely and, based on such materials, contain a range of unique physical and chemical characteristics.

Ilankoon I et al (2018a) E-waste in the international context – a review of trade flows, regulations, hazards, waste management strategies and technologies for value recovery. Waste Management, 82:258–275

The most common types of materials that are found in WEEE include metals, plastic, and glass, while others include printed circuit boards (PCBs), cables, and even unspecified pollutants (e.g., chemicals that are added to some plastics to make them less prone to catching fire when overheating). Interestingly, up to 69 elements from the periodic table can be found in EEE. This includes, but is not limited to, the following prominent elements:

  • Precious Metals: Gold, silver, copper, platinum, and more.
  • Critical Raw Materials (CRM): Cobalt, palladium, indium, and others that are considered essential for economic well-being but at risk in terms of supply.
  • Noncritical Metals: Commonly found metals like aluminium and iron.
  • Hazardous metals: Toxic heavy metals such as mercury, lead, and cadmium.

Glass found within e-waste is contained in Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) and Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) screens and is also found in light bulbs such as LEDs and fluorescent tubes. Plastic within e-waste is particularly complex, as it is often a mix of common plastics such as High Impact Polystyrene (HIPS), Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS), and expanded polystyrene (EPS), as well as potentially harmful Brominated Flame Retardants (BFRs) plastics.

Due to this complex mix of materials, including both precious and critical metals as well as hazardous metals and BFR plastics, the recycling of e-waste is extremely complicated and requires specialist knowledge regarding proper collection, handling, and processing, as well as any final treatment that might be required for non-recyclable fractions.

The Hazardous Side: A Closer Look at the Dark Side

E-waste, comprising a complex blend of metals, plastics, and other materials, has unique chemical and physical characteristics. The disposal of Electronic and Electrical Equipment (EEE) includes hazardous substances like lead, mercury, and arsenic, and in very old cooling equipment, one might still find Ozone Depleting Substances (ODS) such as CFCs and HCFCs, which are now banned as they are known to severely harm both the environment and ultimately, human health.

Brominated Flame Retardant (BFR) plastics contained in consumer electronics further add to the complexity of recycling and disposal. In South Africa, since no solution currently exists to recycle BFR, most of this type of plastic is sent to landfills, illustrating the challenges of handling these materials.

The health impacts of e-waste are increasingly alarming, affecting adults, children, and even unborn babies through exposure to toxic substances. E-waste that is handled in a non-compliant manner can further aggravate the issue, leading to adverse health effects and environmental risks.

A combination of stricter regulations, public awareness, responsible recycling, and global collaboration is vital for managing e-waste. This multifaceted approach will ensure the safe handling of hazardous substances, thereby protecting vulnerable populations and the environment and exemplifying the need for informed action.

Two hands carefully working on assembling electronic parts

Recycling Challenges and Opportunities

Recycling WEEE is vital to mitigate the negative environmental and social impacts of waste and to ensure the recovery of valuable secondary materials. Some of the major challenges being faced within developing nations, including South Africa, include:

  • Growing e-waste per capita due to lifestyle and technological advancements
  • Lack of e-waste-specific legislation and enforcement 
  • Correct handling and processing are required due to the complex mix of materials
  • Lack of awareness and limited collection mechanisms
  • Inadequate recycling infrastructure and technologies

With the current documented formal collection and recycling rate of 17.4% globally, e-waste still holds enormous additional recovery and recycling potential. Worldwide, a staggering USD 10 billion in raw material value can be recovered, and 4 Mt of secondary raw materials can be made available for recycling. Focusing on just iron, aluminium, and copper, the recycling of these materials saved up to 15 Mt of CO2 equivalent emissions in 2019. This shows how more recycling of WEEE could significantly reduce the need for mining and thus lessen the environmental impact. 

In addition to the above opportunities, within South Africa, which faces massive unemployment, the social upliftment opportunities from safe and skilled e-waste recycling are also important. Opportunities need to be explored on how to create employment through the expansion of existing recycling activities, but also through the creation of new SMMEs within the collection and processing of e-waste, and even through the creation of new products via upcycling recycled materials and/or components.

View our WEEE recycling resources to learn more about the importance of recycling electronic waste as well as how to properly dispose of e-waste.

The Importance of Recycling

Given the complexity and partially hazardous nature of e-waste, recycling should become a priority. WEEE are iLembe is dedicated to building awareness and partnerships around e-waste and e-waste recycling in the iLembe District and surrounding areas.

With the growing annual rate of e-waste generation, a timely response to this challenge is critical. Embracing proper recycling processes will not only conserve the environment but also unlock economic and financial opportunities.

A landfill filled with electronic waste, rubbish and other trash.

If you would like to start an e-waste project or want to partner with us, please contact us.


Global E-Waste Monitor 2020

Study on e-waste in South Africa

​​Management of e-waste: case study of producers in Gauteng

A review of the recent development, challenges, and opportunities

of electronic waste (e‑waste)

Concepts of circular economy for sustainable management of electronic wastes

Metals in e-waste: Occurrence, fate, impacts and remediation technologies

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