Only one-third of EU e-waste recycled, a lot illegally sold

31 Aug 2015

A new European Union (EU) funded research project has revealed some unpleasant news for Europeans, as the findings show that we have no idea of how to dispose of electronic waste (e-waste).

The two-year e-waste report wanted to look into how waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) is being disposed of and what links to crime its disposal might have in terms of groups harvesting old equipment illegally.

According to Science Daily, Europe is one of the worst continents when it comes to properly disposing of e-waste, with just 35pc – equating to 3.3m tonnes – actually making it to where it’s supposed to.

As for the remaining 6.2m tonnes of e-waste, the report says that this huge amount of material was exported to distant lands to be someone else’s problem, recycled under non-compliant conditions or wrongfully dumped among regular waste.

However, equally as damaging – although not from an environmental perspective – is that another significant proportion of this e-waste being exported is finding its way into the hands of criminals.

During the two-year study, the researchers found that 4.7m tonnes of e-waste was believed to have been illegally traded within Europe itself or just totally mismanaged, even among what would be considered the continental leaders in regulation.

Profiting from environmental damage

These illegal traders are mostly targeting the precious metals contained within circuit boards and other WEEE and are believed to be stealing a monetary value of between €800m and €1.7bn from legal waste disposal companies.

It’s a particularly lucrative business, with a report issued last April stating that the world threw away approximately US$52bn in valuable metals through e-waste in 2014.

Despite this level of theft, the researchers said that only 0.5pc of e-waste – equating to 2,000 tonnes – was stopped by authorities or saw the sentencing of those committing the theft.

The researchers have made a series of recommendations aiming to clamp down on illicit trade on e-waste, calling for the creation of a National Environmental Security Task Force (NEST), greater awareness among governments and a ban on payment in cash for e-waste.

Speaking of the report’s findings, Norbert Zonneveld, executive secretary of European Electronics Recyclers Association and a member of the CWIT project advisory board, said : “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.”

E-waste image via Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic