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23rd Feb 2024

Criminal dumping poses test for EU's electronic waste

  • It is estimated the EU exports around 400,000 tonnes of undocumented electrical waste every year (Photo: Vibek Raj Maurya)

EU member states risk missing new 'e-waste' targets as they face challenges to comply both with existing rules and to fight criminal activities such as illegal dumping, a new report of the European Court of Auditors published on Thursday (20 May) revealed.

Discarded electrical and electronic tools, household appliances and even large equipment such as solar panels often contain complex combinations of highly toxic substances, which can cause damage to people and the environment if they are not disposed of properly.

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The EU has some of the highest electronic waste per capita.

However, the bloc's average collection rate of electrical waste is less than half the weight of electronic products placed on the market, according to Eurostat.

"The collection and recovery of e-waste in the EU has improved over time, and the EU currently recycles about 80 percent of the e-waste it collects," said Joëlle Elvinger, the auditor responsible for this review.

"However, the collection, recycling and reuse of e-waste are not equally effective in all member states, and…we observed some challenges in the way the EU deals with the mismanagement of e-waste, illegal shipments and other criminal activities," she added.

Since 2019, EU rules establish a minimum collection rate of 65 percent of all electronic waste placed on the market in the preceding three years, or 85 percent of the e-waste generated in a specific EU country.

However, data available for 2017 and 2018 reveal that only a few member states achieve a collection rate of 65 percent in those years, EU auditors say.

Meanwhile, a separate study shows that only Bulgaria and Croatia would reach this goal in 2019, and no member state would achieve the alternative 85 percent target - mainly because e-waste tends to be mixed in with scrap metal.

In its action plan on a circular economy, presented last year, the EU executive said electronic equipment requires better product design, and circularity, in its production processes. A "Circular Electronics Initiative" is planned for the last quarter of 2021.

Over the years, the European Commission has launched 28 infringement procedures against member states for breaching EU e-waste rules. Three cases against Austria, Czech Republic and Sweden remain open.

Secret GPS tracking reveals ultimate destinations

Meanwhile, the illegal shipment of toxic electronics to developing countries is still one of the main challenges for member states when collecting and recovering e-waste.

The Countering WEEE Illegal Trade project, a body that provides recommendations to support the EU Commission in countering illegal trade of e-waste in and from Europe, estimated in 2015 that the EU exports about 400,000 tonnes of undocumented electrical waste every year.

This figure only represents 10.5 percent of the electronics properly collected in the then 28 member states in 2015.

Both EU and international law forbid exporting hazardous electronics from EU member states to countries that are not members of the OCDC.

However, an experiment conducted by the US-based NGO Basel Action Network (BAN) revealed the destination of e-waste when leaving Europe.

In 2017, BAN deployed 314 pieces of electronic equipment secretly equipped with GPS trackers in waste collection points in 10 EU countries.

Out of the 314 tracked units, 303 remained in the EU, while 11 ended up in seven different non-OECD countries - namely Ghana, Hong Kong, Nigeria, Pakistan, Tanzania, Thailand, and Ukraine.

During the period 2013-2015, EU member states (then including the UK) reported some 2,800 illegal shipments of waste, including electronics, according to the EU Commission.

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