As the EU institutions discuss updating the bloc's 2003 electronic waste directive, researchers argue that the hasty recast ignores important topics, such as scarcity of some key raw materials, which have since climbed up the EU agenda.
There are many "pivotal issues" that are not under consideration in the recast of the EU directive on Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE), said Harri Kalimo, senior research fellow at the Institute for European Studies at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel.
This is because "there are several elephants in the room," added Reid Lifset, a researcher at Yale University and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Industrial Ecology.
Speaking at a workshop on extended producer responsibility for e-waste yesterday (1 March), Lifset said that the recast, launched in 2008, shies away from properly dealing with four important topics, on which there is a "real lack" of both substantial data and willingness to address the issues.
First, he said the recast fails to recognise "the ubiquity of WEEE shredding," noting that it is impossible to find out how much material is being recovered through shredding in developing countries, where most precious waste seems to end up.
Secondly, as more and more exotic new materials are being used to make ever-more sophisticated electronics, security of supply and resource scarcity issues related to WEEE should be considered in more detail, he said.
An expert group set up by the European Commission is currently screening a list of thirty-nine raw materials that are "potentially critical" for the EU economy and whose availability to industry could be threatened as global competition for natural resources intensifies (EURACTIV 04/06/09, 01/12/09).
Furthermore, the "negative and positive cost of e-waste" is not being addressed properly, Lifset said. As Asian economies grow, a lot of secondary materials are becoming available at good prices, he said, arguing that there is little incentive to recycle mobile phones, for example, if they can be sold elsewhere.
Lastly, Lifset noted that knowledge is scarce on the flow of e-waste to developing countries, where it ends up thanks to "cherry picking" or dumping. He also stressed that WEEE is key to people's livelihoods in developing countries, but that there is little knowledge of actual reuse and material recovery streams there.
European Parliament hopes to address failings
Meanwhile, the European Parliament's environment committee last week published a draft report amending the Commission's proposed recast of the WEEE directive.
Presenting the draft, the committee's rapporteur, Karl-Heinz Florenz (European People's Party, Germany), acknowledged that the current WEEE directive has "more holes than emmental cheese". He described the rate of implementation of the directive, which stands at less than 1% in some member states, as "absolutely appalling", and urged the EU-27 to increase checks on WEEE exports so that European waste and raw materials are not shipped outside the bloc.
MEPs in the committee want to oblige e-waste exporters to submit evidence that the re-use, recycling and recovery of e-waste in the country of reception respects strict EU rules.
This would prevent developing countries from essentially becoming an e-waste dumping ground for Europe.
In addition to addressing loopholes in the international trade of WEEE, the draft report also recommends setting European standards for collection, recycling and treatment of WEEE and stresses that the loss of raw materials due to inappropriate recovery is a serious problem.