Vast flows of electronic waste mean that weak regulation has serious consequences

Only a third of Europe’s electronic waste is ending up in official collection and recycling systems, while the remaining 6m tonnes is exported, recycled under non-compliant conditions for criminal gain or thrown into landfill, according to a report by United Nations University (UNU), Interpol, the WEEE (waste electrical and electronic equipment) Forum and other partners.

They call for better guidelines and formal definitions to help authorities distinguish used, non-waste electronics and electrical equipment from e-waste – equipment coming out of use or in post-use storage for collection or disposal. The report also recommends an EU-wide ban on cash transactions in the scrap metal trade and harmonising penalties to prevent criminals from shifting activities to lower-risk countries within the EU. At present prison and financial penalties for illegal e-waste trade vary widely.

The European Union-funded report, Countering WEEE Illegal Trade (CWIT), concluded that current WEEE legislation, which is aimed at both increasing the recycling and/or re-use of e-waste and eliminating certain metals such as lead, mercury and cadmium from products, was having only a limited effect. About 30% of EU members have not implemented the tough regulations that are required, and penalties for infractions at the national level are not high enough to deter wrongdoing, the report states.

The widespread theft of valuable components such as circuit boards and precious metals from waste electronics means an annual loss of between €800m and €1.7bn in materials and resources for compliant waste processors in Europe, the researchers find. Avoided costs of compliance with EU regulations (mainly de-pollution) are put at €150m to €600m annually.

Pascal Leroy, secretary-general of the WEEE Forum, says: “Electronic and electrical equipment represents the fastest-growing flow of the world’s waste streams. The weight of Europe’s mismanaged e-waste alone equals that of a 10-metre high brick wall stretching from Oslo to the toe of Italy. Valuable metals and components, including critical raw materials, need to be safely captured and recycled to the fullest possible extent.”

EU aims to reuse and repair electronic products

The study estimates 1.3m tonnes of discarded electronics left the EU in undocumented mixed exports in 2012, of which some 30% (about 400,000 tonnes) was electronic waste and 70% functioning equipment.

More than 10 times the 400,000 tonnes of e-waste exported – about 4.7m tonnes – was mismanaged or illegally traded within Europe itself. And even the few EU member states with robust reporting systems often lack monitoring of de-pollution efforts or suitable treatment conditions.

As well as mismanagement, the CWIT study highlights cases of tax evasion, fraud and money laundering, showing that offences could be tackled under existing financial crime charges. More targeted investigations, inspection systems and national monitoring are needed, the researchers say. Improving the involvement and awareness of users in the early stages of the e-waste chain is also vital.

EU legislation restricting the use of hazardous substances in electrical and electronic equipment (RoHS Directive 2002/95/EC) and promoting the collection and recycling of such equipment (WEEE Directive 2002/96/EC) has been in force since February 2003.

‘Ambitious new approach’

In the near term, focus is now on what the European Commission will unveil as its “ambitious new approach” to the circular economy, with a revised proposal due by the end of 2015. A 12-week public consultation on the main policy options closed at the end of August.

The options will look at waste policy “and beyond” and address the full product lifecycle, the Commission says, including actions on intelligent product design, reuse and repair of products, recycling, sustainable consumption, smart use of raw materials, stronger markets for secondary raw materials and “specific sectorial measures”. The CWIT research was also undertaken in partnership with the UN Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute, the Cross Border Research Association, Zanasi & Partners and Compliance & Risks.

Toxic materials in the world’s annual 41.8m tonnes of discarded electronics include lead in glass (an estimated 2.2m tonnes), batteries (300,000 tonnes), mercury, cadmium, chromium and ozone-depleting substances (4,400 tonnes of CFCs), according to a UNU study last year. Health problems linked with such toxins include impaired mental development, cancer and damage to liver and kidneys. 

e-waste  electronic waste  circular economy  European Comission 

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