Only a third of European WEEE legally recycled

Only a third of European WEEE legally recycledBarely a third of used waste electronics and electrical equipment (WEEE) discarded by European companies and consumers in 2012 ended up in official collection and recycling systems, a study funded by the European Union (EU) has found.

The two-year investigation, Countering WEEE Illegal Trade (CWIT), was carried out by a range of organisations led by the United Nations University and INTERPOL, the international criminal police organisation.

According to the project’s findings, published on Sunday (30 August), just 35 per cent of WEEE discarded in Europe was correctly recycled in 2012. The figure accounts for around 3.3 million tonnes of the 9.5 million tonnes disposed of over the course of the year.

Electronic goods making up the remaining 6.2 million tonnes were either exported (1.5 million tonnes), recycled under non-compliant conditions (3.15 million tonnes), scavenged for valuable parts (750,000 tonnes) or disposed of as residual waste (750,000 tonnes).

Of this, the study estimates that 1.3 million tonnes of discarded electronics left the EU in ‘undocumented mixed exports’, of which an estimated 30 per cent was unusable electronic waste.

The majority of electronic waste, however, remained in the EU, with the study describing around 4.7 million tonnes as ‘wrongfully mismanaged or illegally traded’ within the continent.

This disposal within the EU, the research found, was not always subjected to efficient monitoring of depollution efforts or ‘up-to-standard treatment conditions’, even in member states with effective reporting systems.

In addition to the environmental impact, the report highlights the economic impact of incorrect disposal, estimating the annual avoided costs of compliance with EU regulations, mainly those concerning depollution, to be between €150 million (£110 million) to €600 million (£441 million). This figure pales in comparison to the estimated intrinsic material value of the WEEE that is not available for compliant processing in Europe of between €800 million (£587 million) and €1.7 billion (£1.2 billion).

Recommendations to reduce illegal e-waste trade

As a result of the findings, the CWIT report recommends a multi-stakeholder approach and outlines a roadmap to reduce illegal electronic waste trade.

It specifically suggests creating two new systems to foster inter-agency and international cooperation: an ‘Operational Intelligence Management System’, to promote and support intelligence-led enforcement; and a ‘National Environment Security Task Force (NEST)’, to enable a cooperative, collaborative and coordinated law enforcement response at national, regional and international levels.

Among the other proposals mentioned in the report are:

  • an EU-wide ban on cash transactions in the scrap metal trade;
  • mandatory treatment of WEEE according to approved standards, with certification and mandatory reporting to the European Commission;
  • full transposition of the recast WEEE Directive and harmonised guidelines for distinguishing waste from non-waste;
  • more targeted investigations, inspection systems and national monitoring; and
  • improved involvement and awareness of users in the early stages of the electronic waste chain.

Fast-growing electronic waste stream ‘must be safely captured and recycled’

Following the report’s publication, Pascal Leroy, Secretary-General of the WEEE Forum, said: “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.”

David Higgins, Head of Environmental Security Sub-Directorate of INTERPOL and Coordinator of CWIT, added: “As a profitable activity, with low risk of detection, this form of illicit trade is vulnerable to exploitation, which governments should prevent by employing a balanced mix of administrative and criminal penalties reflecting the value of illicit profits, as well as the large environmental and social harm involved.

“The law enforcement community needs to be more proactive with illicit e-waste investigations, complemented by strengthened prosecution and sentencing.”

Norbert Zonneveld, Executive Secretary of the European Electronics Recyclers Association and Member of the CWIT project advisory board, concluded: “Illegal and non-compliant activities are disruptive for the proper functioning of the market and cause huge economic losses for responsible actors. It gnaws at the credibility of legal execution while the environment is suffering.”

Read the ‘Countering WEEE Illegal Trade Summary Report’.

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