New law seeks to limit dumping of e-waste

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At least 85% of electrical and electronic waste generated in the European Union will have to be recycled by 2020 under new rules that took effect today (13 August).

The update to a decade-old Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive followed hard-fought bargaining over how to improve the recovery of computers and other electronic and electrical waste, much of which is now either dumped in landfills or shipped abroad for disposal because of the high cost of recycling in Europe.

Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik said the new measures are a step towards re-using valuable materials such as rare earth metals, gold, silver and copper used in televisions, computers, mobile phones and other household products.

"In these times of economic turmoil and rising prices for raw materials, resource efficiency is where environmental benefits and innovative growth opportunities come together,” Potočnik said in a statement.

Under legislation adopted by the European Parliament in January and backed by national leaders, EU countries will have to recover 45 tonnes of e-waste for every 100 tonnes of e-goods sold by 2016, rising to 65% of sales by 2019 - or 85% of all e-waste generated. Newer member countries get an extension until 2021.

In approving the new rules on 7 June, the EU Council expanded the directive to include solar panels, fluorescent lighting containing mercury and equipment containing ozone-depleting substances. EU countries have until 14 February 2014 to adopt the directive into their national laws.

Dumped or exported

Barely one-third of such items are recycled at home, researchers say, while the bulk goes into landfills. But thousands of tonnes of electronic goods are exported because second-hand computer components and recycled metals are lucrative commodities for poorer countries.

But a big chunk of such waste is exported illegally and dumped rather than refurbished, according to a recent study - ‘Where are WEEE in Africa’ - produced by the UN Environment Programme.

The new directive requires national governments to provide information on where goods can be recycled goods, including in-store facilities for smaller electronic goods like mobile telephones, and calls on national governments to more rigorously enforce exports of e-waste.

The compromise agreement on WEEE garnered broad support across political groups and national leaders signed off on the recast directive in December 2011. Still, retailers expressed fears they would bear the brunt of responsibility for collections and transport.

Advocates say the new directive will help businesses by setting common EU standards aimed at boosting recycling and encouraging resource efficiency. They also praise new measures aimed at ending potentially harmful substances from ending up at disposal sites abroad.

Some environmental groups, however, said the legislation did not go far enough in setting higher targets sooner. While the 85% target is an ultimate goal, the legislation imposes a recovery target of 45% of new electronic sales in 2016 and 65% in 2019 and gives newer EU members extra time to comply.

“Collection targets have been delayed and the introduction of economic instruments for greener design, reuse targets and ambitious recycling targets have been left to a future revision, which is a bitter blow to the environment and Europe’s economic development,”  Stéphane Arditi, senior policy officer for the European Environmental Bureau, said in January during parliamentary discussions on the rules.

Timeline: 
  • 14 Feb. 2014: Deadline for EU countries to adopt the WEEE Directive into national law.
  • 2016: At least 45% of e-goods sold must be recovered.
  • 2019: At least 65% of e-good sold must be collected, or 85% of overall e-waste
  • 2021: Deadline for Bulgaria, Romania and other new EU countries to comply.
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