Only one third of EU’s e-waste recycled properly

Only one third of e-waste is properly recycled in the EU

According to the Commission 9 million tonnes of e-waste were generated in the EU in 2005, the number is expected to grow to more than 12 million tonnes by 2020. [Ian Riley/Flickr]

More than two thirds of metal appliances and tech products that are thrown away in the EU are processed illegally and some leak toxins into the environment that can have dangerous health effects. Researchers said Europe has an electronic waste problem.

Almost five million tonnes of e-waste were mismanaged or traded under the table within the EU in 2012, and 1.3 million tonnes were illegally exported out of the EU, mostly to Africa and Asia.

Only one third of Europe’s e-waste is properly recycled.

Refrigerators are among the worst culprits that leak dangerous materials if they’re not carefully recycled.

An estimated 84,000 tonnes of refrigerator compressors don’t end up at official processing centres, which produce roughly the same amount of CO2 as five million cars, according to a report published over the weekend (30 August) by the Countering WEEE Illegal Trade (CWIT) project.

“We don’t need to look at what happens in Ghana, Nigeria and China. A lot is going wrong in Europe. The mismanaged e-waste within Europe is ten times the amount exported to places like Ghana,” said Pascal Leroy, secretary general of the NGO WEEE Forum, which campaigns for electronics recycling.

Electronics go through a more costly and extensive recycling process than many other materials because some devices can release toxins like mercury and cadmium.

Leroy said Europe’s bad track record on e-waste recycling has to do with the high cost of disposing hazardous materials, but also with the “miniaturisation of products” that consumers are used to tossing into normal waste bins.

Tech industry association DigitalEurope said in a statement, “We believe that In order to address this problem all recyclers in Europe should be forced by law to meet the EN treatment standards and report their volumes of treated WEEE under official statistics. If this is implemented and enforced the EU targets are well within reach.”

Spain and some poorer EU member states like Romania and Bulgaria are lagging behind in e-waste collection, according to Leroy. Scandinavian countries, Austria, Belgium and the Netherlands have some of the highest collection rates.

Current EU law requires member states to inform the European Commission about the amount of electronics they recycle, export and collect.

But a lot of e-waste is slipping through the cracks. Illicit exports, improperly recycled or undeclared electronics have been going undetected.

>> Read: Fitting e-waste into the circular economy

Crackdown on crime

The value of electronics products makes them attractive for scavengers and thieves, adding to the e-waste mismanagement problem.

The CWIT report singles out organised crime groups it says are responsible for much of the illegal trade of electronics within Europe and to other countries.

Researchers from Interpol, UN organisations and other groups who authored the report are calling for an EU-wide ban on cash interactions in e-waste trade, which they say will put the brakes on criminals’ profits.

France banned purchasing scrap metals with cash in 2011.

“What happens in the Netherlands and Belgium and other countries is that you have metal theft. People go to collection points and scavenge, steal e-waste and sell it to recyclers in cash. If you disallow cash transactions, the whole business becomes more transparent and you can trace what happens to the components,” Leroy said.

In France, collection rates are much lower in areas bordering neighbouring countries with more lax rules. Leroy said that pattern suggests collectors there bring e-waste across the border and exchange it for cash.

A European Commission spokesperson declined to comment on the demand for an EU-wide cash ban in e-waste trade.

Next year, the Commission is launching a review of legislation on environmental crime that will look at penalties hitting waste offenders around the EU.

The value of electronics in the EU that are processed or traded under the radar is estimated between €800 million and €1.7 billion.

Many of the electronics illegally exported from Europe—especially from wealthier EU member states—aren’t even broken. Some of the products can still be reused or refurbished.

>> Read: MEPs weaken efficiency target in circular economy resolution

Circular economy

The European Commission dropped proposed legislation for the low waste Circular Economy package earlier this year and has vowed to come up with new laws as part of the sustainability reform by the end of this year.

The previous proposals outlined recycling goals of 70% for municipal waste by 2030 and 80% for materials including glass, paper, metal and plastic.

Commission spokesperson Enrico Brivio said the EU’s 2004 WEEE directive on e-waste management is part of the EU’s circular economy plans.

“Producing modern electronics requires the use of scarce and expensive resources (e.g. around 10 % of total gold worldwide is used for their production), so recycling them has obvious advantages. The more valuable our waste becomes due to pressures on our resources, the more we will need the technologies and innovation to pump it back into the economy instead of burying it or burning it,” Brivio said.

The Circular Economy package was intended to increase recycling levels and tighten rules on incineration and landfill.

It consisted of six bills on waste, packaging, landfill, end of life vehicles, batteries and accumulators, and waste electronic equipment.

Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans was given a mandate from new Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to cut red tape and deliver “better regulation”.

He told MEPs in December that he would consult with the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament before withdrawing and re-tabling the package. 

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