Recycling White Goods – A New Lease of Life

In Sweden, the most common white goods are cookers, dish washers, washing machines and tumble dryers. We tend to use our white goods products for 12 years on average before committing most of them to a recycling centre. And although most hazardous substances have been phased out of these products, the number of different components and materials keeps increasing as manufacturers make their products more and more advanced. In 2019, El-Kretsen made an in-depth analysis of the collected white goods, which resulted in some interesting statistics.

In 2020, we collected some 35,000 tonnes of white goods. This can be translated into collecting around 900,000 products for recycling. Iron makes up the majority, almost 70 per cent, of the materials. These large household appliances are among the easiest WEEE to recycle, as they contain fewer materials and generally also fewer environmentally hazardous components. Additionally, there is less “smart technology” involved, which means fewer components such as circuit boards and display screens – in other words fewer products that typically contain precious metals. However, not surprisingly the new digital technology is making its way into white goods, too. Products launched in the past few years are becoming increasingly advanced and now contain materials that were previously not found in white goods at all.

70% 70% Iron is by far the most common material in white goods.

Many Hazardous Substances Have Been Phased Out

The legislation on the handling of white goods states that certain components have to be dismantled and removed in order to enable safe handling and/or the highest possible degree of recycling of these materials. A number of substances that can be harmful to both people and the environment have to be treated in special processes. However, many previously known hazardous substances (PCB, for example) have nowadays also been replaced in white goods. Similarly, finding mercury, cadmium, radioactive substances, brominated flame retardants, etc. is these days an exception to the rule. This is one clear result of modern legislation and the advances in technology.

Tougher Legislation on Materials Recovery

Sweden’s targets for materials recovery is stipulated by law and this legislation has become tougher. 85 per cent of the white goods collected is now to be recycled, and 80 per cent of the materials therein are to be recovered. In 2020, the Swedish EPA introduced a new definition of the plastic that has so far not been recyclable, but has instead served as a substitute for other materials. (This is also known as “fluff”.) At the same time, El-Kretsen started taking a closer look at how our processes could be made to produce an even higher rate of recovered materials.

The Recovery Rate for White Goods in 2020

The white goods that end up in our collection is included in category 4, “Large Electric Appliances”. In 2020, 99 per cent was recycled. Of this, 83 per cent was recovered.

Material Hantering %
Iron Material recycling 62%
Aluminium Material recycling 3%
Copper Material recycling 1%
Other metals Material recycling 5%
Plastic Material recycling 0,2%
Other recyclable materials (concrete, etc) Material recycling 12%
Other combustible materials Other recycling 16%
Not recyclable or combustible material Landfill 1%
Total 100%

An In-Depth Analysis of Recycled White Goods

In 2019, El-Kretsen conducted a study into the white goods collected for recycling. Factors such as make, age, weight, damage, NFS fraction content, capacitors, circuit boards, cabling, luminaires, etc. were noted down. The ensuing statistical data was then analysed and compiled by Chalmers University of Technology, who found that the amount of data was large enough to provide certain information about the collection of white goods in Sweden. For example, the average large household appliance in Sweden is used for 12 years before it is replaced with a new product.

A Washing Machine – Behind the Scenes

Around 20 per cent of all household water is consumed to keep our clothes clean. One wash uses around 50 litres of water. This is only half of what was needed in the 1990s. Other technological advances that have been made to reduce the environmental impact are intelligent dosing systems, steam functions, energy-saving programmes (where higher temperatures and more water are replaced by longer cycles, which reduces the use of water and energy). Almost half of the patents filed in the last few years relate directly to minimising the environmental impacts.

Some of the results of the studies made:

  • Average weight: 70 kgs
  • Average age: 9 years
  • Visibly damaged washing machines: 12%
  • Washing machines with one or more circuit boards: 96%
  • Circuit boards made up 0.3 per cent of the total weight of the washing machines. A circuit board contains a number of rare metals like gold, silver and copper, as well as plastics and other materials that can be recycled and reused. Measured in weight, it doesn’t amount to much, but is crucial for reaching the target on full circularity. The washing machine example shows that most of the products we use today contain circuit boards.

Read more about precious metals here.