2022 life cycle assessment – one million tonnes of recyclable materials in 33 years of eRecycling

In 2022, 89,952 tonnes of electrical appliances entered the SENS take-back system. Some 110.9 tonnes of hazardous substances were removed together with our disposal partners, and 63,185 tonnes of recyclable materials were reclaimed. After 33 years of eRecycling, we’ve broken the barrier of one million tonnes of recycled materials. The recovered iron would be enough for 12 new Golden Gate Bridges.

Since 1990, we have been working with our partners to collect, sort and dismantle electrical or electronic appliances so that the hazardous substances they contain do not end up in the environment and valuable materials such as iron, steel, copper and glass are returned to the raw materials cycle. That’s not just good for the environment, but also for the climate. But what are the actual benefits for the environment and climate? We want to have a clear picture of this – that's why we report the environmental and climate benefits annually in a life cycle assessment. Here you can find out how high these figures are for 2022, how they are calculated and how many appliances were recycled in 2022. 

Appliance quantities

Almost 90,000 tonnes of appliances were processed in 2022

Some 89,952 tonnes of appliances ended up in the SENS eRecycling take-back system in 2022. This figure included 20,508 tonnes of refrigerators, freezers and air conditioners, 37,167 tonnes of large electrical appliances, such as washing machines, dishwashers and tumble dryers, and 30,386 tonnes of small electrical appliances. The latter includes electric toothbrushes and toasters as well as mixers and coffee machines. In addition, 955 tonnes of lighting equipment and 936 tonnes of photovoltaic modules were processed. While the quantity of large and small electrical appliances remained relatively constant compared to the previous year, the quantity of photovoltaic modules increased sharply once again. And that won’t change any time soon, as more and more photovoltaic modules are reaching the end of their service life and will have to be replaced in the next few years.

Environmental benefits

From the almost 90,000 tonnes of electrical and electronic appliances processed in 2022, the recycling companies removed a total of 110.9 tonnes of hazardous substances as well as reclaiming 63,185 tonnes of recyclable materials and returning them to the material cycle. The resulting benefit for the environment is estimated at 1,375 billion environmental impact points (EIP) in the 2022 life cycle assessment – equivalent to 300 flights around the world in a long-haul aircraft. SENS eRecycling is therefore making a significant contribution towards reducing environmental pollution in Switzerland.

How the environmental performance of SENS eRecycling is determined

To calculate the environmental benefit of recycling electrical and electronic appliances, Carbotech, which prepares the life cycle assessment for SENS eRecycling, compares the annual performance of SENS eRecycling (actual situation) with a reference scenario “without SENS”. This is based on the premise that in a “without SENS” scenario, the same amount of appliances would be used as in the current “with SENS” system. It also assumes that in a system “without SENS”, the economically useful recyclable materials would be recovered from the electrical or electronic appliances, but the expensive removal of hazardous substances would be neglected. This difference between the actual situation “with SENS” and the scenario “without SENS” reveals the environmental performance of SENS eRecycling. It is reported in environmental impact points (EIP) and has been calculated using the ecological scarcity method 2021 (MöK 2021) since 2022 (see info box). Carbotech used the annual SENS statistics from 1990 to 2022 as the data basis for the calculations.

The ecological scarcity method 2021 was developed in collaboration with the Federal Office for the Environment and takes into account both the environmental situation and Switzerland’s environmental goals when calculating the environmental benefit, which is shown in environmental impact points (EIP). The method is also widely accepted internationally. However, as the ecological scarcity method 2021 includes new emission factors compared to the ecological scarcity method 2013 previously used, the results of the previous life cycle assessments are no longer comparable with those of 2022. Carbotech has therefore recalculated all the data from SENS eRecycling between 1990 and 2022 using the new method and re-reported it in the current 2022 life cycle assessment. This makes the results from the last 33 years comparable once again.

Removal of hazardous substances yields the greatest environmental benefit

SENS eRecycling generates by far the greatest benefit for the environment through the correct removal of hazardous substances. In 2022, this figure stood at 96 per cent, half of which (50 per cent) was achieved through the correct disposal of PCBs alone. These highly toxic chemical substances are mainly found in old capacitors in lighting ballast units.

What's more, the correct disposal of refrigerants contributed more than a quarter (27 per cent) to the overall environmental benefit of SENS eRecycling, while the removal of mercury contributed a further 19 per cent.

Why the environmental benefit has been decreasing for almost 10 years

Ever stricter environmental regulations mean that, fortunately, fewer and fewer hazardous substances enter the SENS eRecycling take-back system every year. As a result, the environmental benefit attributable to the avoidance of hazardous substances has been falling continuously since 2003 (see chart). By way of example, the use of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in electrical capacitors has been banned in Switzerland since 1986. Since 2003, SENS eRecycling has also felt the effects of this ban in the collection rate of capacitors containing hazardous substances (see chart). In contrast, the manufacture and import of mercury-containing lighting equipment such as fluorescent tubes into Switzerland has only been banned since August 2023. As energy-saving lamps in particular have a relatively long service life, the recycling industry will be grappling with the proper disposal of mercury for a long time to come.

In the first few years of the SENS take-back system, only refrigerators, freezers and air conditioners were collected and disposed of properly. Other electrical or electronic appliances followed from 1993 onwards. This marked the beginning of the controlled disposal of PCB-containing capacitors, which led to a sharp increase in the environmental benefit in 1998. It has been falling continuously since 2003, as fewer and fewer PCB-containing appliances are being recycled.

Climate benefit

Unlike the environmental benefit, the climate benefit is reported in CO2 equivalents (CO2e). In 2022, this amounted to 128,095 tonnes of CO2e. SENS eRecycling achieves the majority of its climate benefit by avoiding greenhouse gas emissions through the correct removal of CFC R11 and CFC R12 refrigerants. In 2022, the correct disposal of these two hazardous substances accounted for 55 per cent and 30.7 per cent of the climate benefit, respectively. Other refrigerants only accounted for around 1.6 per cent of the climate benefit (see first chart below).

Material recovery from recyclable materials also contributes to the climate benefit. This figure stood at 12.7 per cent in 2022 – already four times higher than 33 years ago, when SENS eRecycling first published its figures. This percentage will continue to increase in future, as fewer and fewer R11 and R12 loads will arise. Added to this is the fact that the recovery of iron, steel and aluminium conserves resources. The environmental benefit of recycling is therefore usually much greater than the (energy) input required to process the raw materials.

The climate benefit of recycling electrical or electronic appliances

It is also interesting to analyse the climate benefit by appliance category (see second chart below). Almost the entire climate benefit (98.3 per cent) is attributable to the proper processing of refrigerators, freezers and air conditioners.

In contrast, large and small electrical appliances only account for 1.7 per cent of the total climate benefit, based on the total quantity of appliances processed. The correct disposal of lighting equipment (0.01 per cent) and photovoltaic modules (0.4 per cent) has an even smaller effect on the climate.

Climate benefit by appliance category

Climate benefit development since 1990

The net climate benefit of the last 33 years of SENS electrical appliance recycling amounts to 8.1 million tonnes of CO2e – the same amount of emissions that would have been caused by the entire population of the cantons of Aargau and St. Gallen flying around the world.

Recyclable materials

While the role of the removal of hazardous substances in the overall benefit of recycling electrical or electronic appliances is steadily decreasing, the reprocessing of recyclable materials is becoming increasingly important as resources become ever scarcer: In 2022 alone, a total of 63,185 tonnes of recyclable materials were reprocessed and returned to the cycle. This equates to four per cent. In percentage terms, the total environmental benefit is therefore already five times greater than 33 years ago, when SENS eRecycling first published its figures.

One million tonnes of recyclable materials processed since 1990

The 2022 life cycle assessment shows that SENS eRecycling and its partners have collected and recycled one million tonnes of recyclable materials since 1990. This figure includes 700,000 tonnes of recycled iron and steel, 52,000 tonnes of copper and 44,000 tonnes of aluminium (see chart).

Quantities of recyclable materials recycled in 33 years

Recyclable materials
Quantities in tonnes
703 778
Steel/stainless steel
101 642
43 857
51 982
9 012
95 028
16 354
1 022 365

These quantities would be enough to build 12 new Golden Gate Bridges or make enough high-voltage copper power cable to span the earth two-and-a-half times. What's more, the 44,000 tonnes of aluminium could be used to build 260 new Airbus A380s – the world's largest passenger aircraft.