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E-waste Eludes EU’s Enforcement Efforts

PARIS – Europeans recycled only 35% of electronic waste properly in 2012. The rest was either illegally dumped or traded, according to a two-year study put together by the United Nations University and INTERPOL.

Contrast this figure against the lofty goal of the European Union’s Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE Directive), which became European Law in 2003. The EU’s mission was to recycle at least 85% of electrical and electronics waste equipment by 2016. 

The huge disparity between what was actually recycled in 2012 and the 2016 target begs a lot of questions. 

Is the WEEE Directive turning into a massive failure? If even Europe – the world leader in green initiatives – can’t pull it off, what hope is there for the rest for the world, especially the United States and China? More important, why has so little e-waste been actually recycled?

Setting goals is easy; implementation is much harder. Moreover, enforcing this law has proven more complicated and problematic than anyone ever imagined.

Instead of throwing in the towel, the authors of a 56-page report, “Countering Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Illegal Trade” (CWIT), released last weekend, traced where the e-waste and dissected the supply-chain conundrum.

Members of the European Union-funded CWIT project include INTERPOL, the United Nations University, the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute, the WEEE Forum, the Cross Border Research Association, Zanasi & Partners and Compliance and Risks.

Green organizations regularly issue alarming e-Waste-related reports. The CWIT report, however, stands apart because of its holistic research approach. It involved the WEEE industry, enforcement agencies, lawyers, academia and consultants who specialize in supply-chain issues.

The group sought to identify a spectrum of tangible measures and actions that can mitigate the risk of crime and other non-compliant activities in the WEEE chain.

Ioana Botezatu, an environmental expert at the international police agency INTERPOL, who served as project CWIT coordinator, told us via e-mail exchange, that the report offers, for the first time, “a consolidated multi-faceted and multi-stakeholder view and perspective into one message.” Botezatsu added, “This is also the most extensive, in-depth study on WEEE with information from official (governmental) sources, as well as open sources.”

Don’t blame Africa
The study found that, while EU laws are considered “more stringent” than the rest of the world, more e-waste volume is illegally traded or mismanaged within the EU’s borders, rather than Africa, explained Botezatsu.

In fact, the CWIT report effectively debunked the myth that most e-waste goes illegally to African nations, where much of the scavenging of components takes place. Data in the report show that e-waste wrongfully mismanaged or illegally traded in Europe amounted to 4.65 million tons, 10 times more than the 0.39 million tons of e-waste that left the EU in undocumented exports. 

In short, scavenging of both products and components and the theft of valuable components such as circuit boards and precious metals from e-waste are happening everywhere, not just in ill-regulated developing countries. 

Organized crime involved?
Second, the failure points for e-waste illegalities are numerous. The CWIT report reveals a number of vulnerabilities throughout the used and waste electronics management chain – ranging from collection, consolidation and brokering to treatment and transport. Offenses at each phase include inappropriate treatment and violations of EU regulations, theft, lack of required licenses or permits, smuggling and false load declarations. 

The original WEEE directive made disposal of waste electrical and electronic equipment the responsibility of manufacturers or distributors. The directive required that those companies establish an infrastructure for collecting WEEE in ways that encourage users of electrical and electronic equipment from private households to return WEEE free of charge.

The industry complied with a recycling infrastructure. But the missing link in the WEEE supply chain is the absence of law enforcement authorities.

To read the rest of this article, visit EBN sister site EE Times.

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