How to combat the growing menace of e-waste

E-waste photographed in Nigeria. Photo: EIA
More robust enforcement of laws designed to tackle the growing problem of e-waste is urgently needed, says Anja ffrench of Computer Aid, along with improved management of electrical waste by governments

Every year, thousands of containers of e-waste make their way from the UK to dumping grounds in Africa, China and India, despite import bans and the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive.

Sham traders are pretending to be legitimate reuse and recycling organisations and enticing unsuspecting businesses and local authorities to use them for the disposal of their electrical equipment. At the ports, these traders falsely claim their consignments consist of reusable equipment destined for productive reuse in developing countries, when in fact the contents of their shipments consist of extremely hazardous e-waste. 

This toxic trade is driven by the motive of profit, but the actual cost is borne by the environment and the people who disassemble the equipment. Electronics contain a wealth of valuable resources, including gold, silver and platinum as well as many hazardous substances, such as mercury, lead and arsenic. Since electronic waste is toxic, it must be treated extremely carefully when recovering the valuable resources within, so as to avoid significant health and environmental damage.

In the UK we have had the WEEE legislation in place since 2007. The Environment Agency, who are responsible for policing the directive, have been taking some steps to prosecute companies found to be in breach of the legislation. However, they do not do anywhere near enough, as was again brought to our attention in the recent shocking reports by BBC Panorama and the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) who tracked shipments of our UK e-waste to developing countries. The fact that this is still happening highlights gaps in existing in the legislation and its enforcement that desperately need to be filled.

At Computer Aid we believe that there are solutions to the problem of e-waste. We believe it is essential that those countries with existing laws and regulations for e-waste properly enforce them. This will most likely involve stronger penalties for e-waste criminals and more resources for enforcement authorities. Additionally, all governments need to develop systems for the safe and effective management of e-waste that are backed by legislation and based on producer responsibility. This will enable all countries to develop and maintain the capacity to manage e-waste safely over the long term.

A recent report published by Computer Aid makes a number of clear  recommendations for governments to put an end to the global e-waste problem:

  • Ban the import and export of e-waste. Countries that already have bans in place should enforce them
  • Ban the landfill and other dumping of e-waste. Equipment must be sent to legitimate, licensed operators; if functional, it should be reused and if non-functional, safely recycled.
  • Prioritise reuse over recycling for functional equipment and components. Reuse is up to 20 times more energy efficient than recycling, and actually reduces the amount of waste generated, in the first place.
  • Compel e-waste recycling, but only through legitimate operators. E-waste contains valuable resources that should be recovered, but recycling must be done in ways that do not harm human health and the environment
  • Enact producer responsibility to fund e-waste management and promote ecodesign. This shifts the environmental and economic burden of treating e-waste away from communities, and incentivises electronics producers to design greener products, such as those with less toxics and greater reusability and recyclability. This responsibility should apply in all countries, not just in those in Europe
  • Enforce it – monitor actors and punish criminal activity. Governments must ensure that all producers are registered and all e-waste handlers are licensed. They must also dedicate sufficient resources to the bodies responsible for the effective monitoring and policing of the system.

As well as governments and producers it is also the responsibility of consumers, both households and businesses, to ensure they check where they send their equipment for reuse or recycling. Many UK organisations are unknowingly handing over their unwanted IT equipment to illegal traders. Consumers can easily ensure that they are not contributing to this toxic trade by asking some simple questions of recycling organisations.

There are many reputable organisations including Computer Aid who are licensed and inspected by the Environment Agency, that offer responsible reuse and recycling of equipment and provide the compliance certification relating to the Environment Act, WEEE Directive and Data Protection Legislation. Donating equipment to a charity such as Computer Aid also has the added benefit of extending the life of the equipment through professional refurbishment and reuse in schools and hospitals in developing countries.

Anja ffrench is Director of Communications at Computer Aid International

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