The dangers of e-waste

In February 2009 the Environment Agency began its first prosecution against an individual for an e-waste crime, and claims to have prevented 33 shipments in the previous six months.

Yet this is a drop in the ocean compared to the estimated 33,000 tonnes of computers alone that the UK illegally exports to Africa each year.

In August 2008 the New York Times described e-waste as “the world’s fastest growing and potentially most dangerous waste problem”. The export of waste electrical and electronic equipment to the developing world, much of it leaving our ports classified as ‘reuse’, is a serious issue that remains largely unaddressed in national legislation. Although the UK is a signatory to the 1989 Basel Convention (an international treaty designed to reduce the movement of hazardous waste between nations, specifically from developed nations to poorer countries) and its subsequent revisions this illegal trade has continued unabated.

Traditionally, as with so many other environmental problems, the USA has borne the brunt of the blame, and indeed it continues to export between 70 and 80 per cent of its e-waste to the developing world, but at least it can point to the fact that it did not sign the Basel Convention back in 1989.

However a real change is now on its way. Obama has pledged to sign the Convention, but much more significantly 2009 sees the piloting of e-Stewards - an initiative set up by the Basel Action Network (BAN) and backed by a growing number of legitimate domestic e-waste recyclers.

e-Stewards aims to tackle the problem of cowboy recyclers who are responsible for a significant volume of waste electronic goods leaving the country for ‘reuse’ through providing an independent registration service backed by both the industry and the Basel Action Network, a world-renowned NGO that campaigns on e-waste issues.

The UK Government has a particularly poor record when it comes to e-waste. It was one of the last EU nations to implement the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive, to the point of narrowly avoiding prosecution in the EU courts, and despite its claim that this late implementation would result in a more effective response there is little or no evidence to support this.

At a seminar to be hosted by the UK Displays and Lighting Knowledge Transfer Network at the National Motorcycle Museum, Birmingham, on June 17th, I will be calling for a new organisation to tackle illegal e-waste exports by registering responsible e-waste recyclers and ensuring that Local Authorities and other public and commercial organisations are provided with sufficient information.

In short, to bring something along the lines of both e-Stewards and BAN to the UK. The need is real and urgent and the evidence for a demand for such an organisation is strong and growing.

If you have an interest in e-waste and wish to support this call, please consider coming along to the seminar full details of which can be found here.

If you cannot make the seminar but wish to join the call for action  please send letters of support and any other offers of help by e-mail to or by post to 20/4 Gorgie Road, Edinburgh EH11 2LZ