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Two-year inquiry uncovers illegal trade volumes for electronics 'waste'

30 August 2015

Discarded electronics mismanaged within Europe is around ten times the volume of e-waste exported, according to a two-year long inquiry.

Theft of valuable components from waste electronics results in a loss of materials and resources for compliant waste processors in Europe valued at €800 million to €1.7 billion. Photo courtesy of RECILEC, S.A.

Mismanagement of discarded electronics within Europe involves a volume ten times that of e-waste shipped to foreign shores in undocumented exports, according to a comprehensive two-year investigation into the functioning of the used and waste electronics market.

The European Union-funded project, Countering WEEE (waste electrical and electronic equipment) Illegal Trade (CWIT), was undertaken by Interpol, United Nations University (UNU), United Nations Inter-regional Crime and Justice Research Institute, the WEEE Forum, the Cross Border Research Association, Zanasi & Partners and Compliance & Risks.

The project found that in Europe just 35 percent (3.3 million tonnes of 9.5 million tonnes) of used (but still functioning) and waste electronics and electrical equipment discarded by companies and consumers in 2012 wound up in official collection and recycling systems.

The other discarded electronics - 6.2 million tonnes in all - was either exported, recycled under non-compliant conditions or simply thrown in waste bins.

The study estimates 1.3 million tonnes of discarded electronics departed the EU in undocumented mixed exports, of which an estimated 30 percent (about 400,000 tonnes) was electronic waste; and 70 percent functioning equipment.

More than ten times the 400,000 tonnes of e-waste exported - some 4.7 million tonnes - was wrongfully mismanaged or illegally traded within Europe itself. And, the research found, even in the few EU member states with robust, effective reporting systems, monitoring of de-pollution efforts and up-to-standard treatment conditions are not always securely in place.

The widespread theft of valuable components such as circuit boards and precious metals from waste electronics results in a serious loss of materials and resources for compliant waste processors in Europe. This annual estimated loss is valued at between €800 million and €1.7 billion (US $877 million to $1.86 billion).

Avoided costs of compliance with EU regulations (mainly de-pollution), is estimated at €150 million to €600 million (US $165 million to $658 million) annually.

According to Pascal Leroy, Secretary-General of the WEEE Forum: "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 meter 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."

A UNU study last year said toxic materials in the world's annual 41.8 million tonnes of discarded electronics include lead in glass (an estimated 2.2 million tonnes), batteries (300,000 tonnes), mercury, cadmium, chromium and ozone-depleting substances (CFCs, 4,400 tonnes).

Health problems associated with such toxins include impaired mental development, cancer and damage to livers and kidneys.

The CWIT summary report and recommendations will be available for public viewing here from August 31 2015.

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