Europe risks missing e-waste recycling targets, EU auditors warn

Currently, less than 40% of e-waste, like smartphones and tablets, is recycled in Europe. [Volker Glätsch / Pixabay]

Only two European countries are anywhere close to being on track to achieving the EU’s recycling targets for electronic waste – or e-waste – the European Court of Auditors warned on Thursday (20 May).

Bulgaria and Croatia are the only countries likely to meet the new, more ambitious targets brought in for e-waste, which covers mobile phones, laptops and household appliances, according to a review by the auditors.

Data is not yet available for 2019, the year the new targets came into force, but stats from 2017 and 2018 show that 25 of the 27 countries in the European Union are likely to miss the increased ambition on recycling.

While e-waste collection and recovery have improved over time allowing previous targets to be met, the EU has since set itself more challenging goals.

Currently, less than 40% of e-waste is recycled. This is problematic as the EU aims for a circular economy, creating pressure to recycle the plastics and metals found in electronics. For instance, one tonne of smartphones contains about 100 times more gold than one tonne of gold ore.

“The collection and recovery of e-waste in the EU has improved over time, and the EU currently recycles about 80% of the e-waste it collects,” said Joëlle Elvinger, the court of auditors member responsible for the review.

“However, the collection, recycling and reuse of e-waste are not equally effective in all member states, and could be further increased,” she added.

Half of plastics in electronic waste not recycled in EU

Around half of plastic waste from electronic and electrical equipment (WEEE) is not properly collected or sorted in the EU, according to a new report by SOFIES, an international sustainability project management and consulting firm.

Illegal shipments

The report also highlighted challenges when it comes to ensuring and checking compliance with existing rules as well as breaches and criminal activities, like illegal shipments.

This is particularly worrying as e-waste can be harmful to the environment if it is not treated properly, including releasing toxic chemicals and particulates that cause air pollution, leading to health problems for people.

“Another [challenge] is dealing with mismanagement of e-waste, illegal shipments and other criminal activities. In addition, the EU faces the challenge of further increasing e-waste collection, recycling and reuse,” the review reads.

It points to 299 illegal dumping sites for e-waste uncovered by Italian authorities between 2009 and 2013. Similarly, authorities in Spain found an e-waste recycling company hoarding significant amounts and leaving this untreated.

Increasing ambition

Electronics is one of the fastest growing waste streams in the EU. Europe is also the third-largest generator of e-waste, behind China and the Americas, even though it has the highest collection and recycling rates at 42.5%.

New initiatives by the European Commission could also help drive recycling of e-waste. The auditors say there have been some positive steps, like incorporating eco-design in legislative proposals.

But eco-design still needs to go further, they say, because it is yet to cover electronic equipment like mobile phones and computers. This could be tackled in the upcoming circular electronics initiative due to be unveiled at the end of 2021.

Low recycling rates could also be tackled by introducing e-waste targets not just on products, but also on specific e-waste materials, like non-ferrous metals, precious and rare earth, ferrous metals and key plastic grades, according to Kevin Bradley from the International Bromine Council.

“Having these targets will both link the directive more closely with the circular economy action plan and further stimulate ‘urban mining’ with more of the materials being accounted for and kept in Europe,” he added.

EU unveils circular economy plan 2.0, drawing mixed reactions

The European Commission unveiled its new circular economy action plan on Wednesday (11 March), confirming the EU’s intention of halving municipal waste by 2030, and suggesting to offer consumers a new “right to repair” for computers and smartphones.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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