Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE): The Environmental Cost

Discarded electrical and electronic equipment, e-waste or WEEE, is one of the fastest growing sources of waste. Estimates suggest an annual output of 20 to 50 million tonnes. Increasing at two to three times the rate of other waste streams as new products enter the market and electrical and electronic equipment lifespan decreases.

E-waste is rich in valuable metals available for recovery. It is also laden with over 1000 potential toxic substances including lead, mercury, arsenic and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE) these can move through the environment to contaminate water supplies and enter the food chain.

Because e-waste is made up of many different materials it is difficult to recycle the finite resources contained in WEEE. While some advanced treatment facilities do exist in the developed world, usually it is more economical to ship and treat e-waste in the developing world.

Basel Convention on the movement of Hazardous Waste

The Basel Convention is a global agreement regarding the international movement of hazardous wastes. Under the Convention, e-waste may be categorized as reusable and this is how it is allowed to be shipped. This “reuse/recycling loophole” is a critical weakness of the Convention, which facilitates the transport of e-waste to developing countries who are not equipped to process this complex waste stream.

All countries involved in hazardous waste transport must provide written agreement. The opportunity for self-verification by the receiving country is open to corruption; economic incentives can influence the decision to accept e-waste shipments that cannot be safely treated. Basel Action Network (BAN) advocates all e-waste shipments be inspected and certified prior to shipping, as a way of closing the recycling loophole but this relies on funds and enforcement for success.

EU WEEE Directive

The 1995 Ban Amendment attempted to address the non-uniformity of hazardous waste legislation. It banned any form of hazardous waste trade between developed and developing countries. The Ban Amendment has never been enforced, however the EU has incorporated the principles into the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive. This looks to reduce toxicity of WEEE, improve re-use and recyclability of resources, promote education regarding the optimal lifecycle of WEEE and support research.

The WEEE Directive requires that producers take responsibility for their products, including the financing of e-waste collection and all aspects of environmentally sound treatment through to final disposal. This encourages manufactures to incorporate end-of-life management costs into the selling price.

What is the destination of your WEEE?

Despite the EU’s progressive e-waste legislation only 25% of the overall e-waste stream is collected and treated. The missing 75% e-waste fuels the illegal e-waste trade, that causes environmental and health damage in developing countries. E-waste laws are legally enforceable. In 2012 UK businesses were fined £200,000 for illegally shipping non-functioning televisions to Nigeria.

What to do with your WEEE

The production of e-waste is driven by a combination of rapid technological advances and planned obsolescence which fuel unnecessary consumption and premature discard. Do we really need the new technology as soon as it is launched or the annual upgrade? When your WEEE has genuinely come to the end of its useful life, send it to a reputable recycling company. Here they can reuse parts and recycle the parts they can’t use. WEEE that is working can be shipped to the developing world.

Legal measures are not enough; everyone in society must take responsibility for the management of this priority waste stream.

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