Exporting harm: the trouble with WEEE

Guiyu, China, one of the worlds most polluted cities.
Photo: Jim Puckett/Basel Action Network (BAN).

Once expensive luxuries, the sight of a discarded PC or computer monitor on the street or a skip-full of electronic parts is no longer uncommon – prices have tumbled, technology has become disposable.

When the much-delayed Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive was finally introduced in January 2007 it required businesses and organisations to dispose of their electronic junk responsibly.

The European-wide directive was introduced to prevent the toxic chemicals found in electronics leaching from landfill sites into soil and groundwater, and to encourage better reuse and recycling of the constituent metals, plastics and other materials.

The environmental damage caused by electronic waste disposal has reached catastrophic levels in the developing world, with towns such as Guiyu in China processing a million tonnes of exported electronic waste every year in order to extract metals like gold, copper, and platinum from silicon chips and circuit boards.

The effluent from the primitive extraction processes used − including burning and dipping in acid baths − has led to high levels of contamination: lead levels in water are more than double safe limits so drinking water must be brought in from farther afield, the topsoil is saturated with poisonous heavy metals, and mountains of discarded computers and parts lie throughout the area.

Labourers, often children, work without protection amid toxic fumes, and rates of miscarriage, lead and arsenic poisoning are all significantly higher than usual.

Although China passed its own WEEE regulations last year, the damage already done is enormous, and there are other towns like Guiyu in India, Pakistan and Africa.

So, three years after its introduction here, how successful has the WEEE directive been in preventing these products from ending up on the tip – either in Britain, or abroad?

Adrian Harding, the Environment Agency’s policy advisor on producer responsibility, says there is still work to be done. He said: “What we’ve found in parts of West Africa is that there is equipment turning up there from the US, the UK and the EU that is being dumped. We’re investigating to find out who is responsible, and tracking that supply chain back to its source.”

The agency is currently conducting 14 major investigations, he said, targeting the “big players.”

However, despite mounting investigations and cargo checks at seaports, only one prosecution has been brought under the WEEE regulations: this month, Sita Metal Recycling was fined £4,000 with £4,500 costs.

In Britain alone, an estimated 1.4m tonnes of new electrical and electronic equipment is sold every year, including about four million computers. Before the regulations came into effect, around one million tonnes of junk electronics was landfilled, while in the years since, according to the Environment Agency, the amount being recycled has risen from around 180,000 tonnes in 2006 to 440,000 tonnes in 2009.

One of the more controversial measures introduced by the WEEE directive was the ‘take back’ service shops and manufacturers are obliged to offer customers who buy new-for-old equipment, or join a scheme that funds communal disposal means, like local authority collection points. This hands the responsibility for the product after its useful life to the companies that created it – for example, retailer PC World and manufacturer Dell both operate scrappage schemes for computer parts, whether they were originally bought at their stores or not.

But nothing in the regulations covers equipment thrown away by households, be that computers, toasters, televisions or fridges. Consequently a substantial source of electrical waste – much of it potentially hazardous, such as CFC-filled fridge-freezers and non-flatscreen, old style televisions – is still going to landfill.

Figures from Defra showing the fate of waste deemed ‘hazardous’ (such as printed circuit boards or monitors) in 2008 reveal that around 14,700 tonnes of electrical goods were sent to landfill, 85,000 tonnes were incinerated, and 85,000 tonnes were sent for further treatment. However, these figures also include end-of-life car parts deemed hazardous (for example, catalytic converters or exhausts), batteries, and some liquid solutions.

In fact, an EU memo from December 2008 states that only a third of electrical equipment is “treated according to the legislation”, with 14 per cent going to landfill and the vast majority being shipped abroad.

Adrian Harding admitted that no one knows how much electronic waste is being missed. “It’s an unknowable. When you or I put out a black bag of rubbish that bag will be compacted and deposited in landfill. No one will ever know if it contains an old electric razor or alarm clock,” he said.

“Instead we have to estimate how much WEEE the UK creates, knowing that as the amount we do collect rises there will be less going to landfill or illegally exported.”

Ultimately, he said, making individual companies responsible for their own products after sale would encourage responsible design, manufacture and disposal.

“If manufacturers knew that everything they ever sold was going to come back to them to deal with they’d be much more diligent in their design – minimizing the use of different materials, marking plastics and polymers correctly, reducing and simplifying the materials,” he said. “Individual responsibility would reward those companies that innovate and make their products last longer, easy to repair and easy to recycle, because it would be in their financial interest to do so.”

The UK’s regulations encourage reuse over recycling, in fact crediting producers that do so – unique among EU member states – and a cottage industry has sprung up to make use of discarded equipment, particularly computers.

Alan Buchel, operations manager at Comm-Tech, a computer recycling company in south London that uses refurbished computers to support charities, said the effects of the WEEE regulations took some time to emerge: “Individuals are now a lot more conscious of the impact of throwing away their computers and are more willing to make the effort to bring their machines in,” he said.

“A few years ago, householders contacting us had no idea of computers’ environmental damage, and just thought that any old computer could be useful to someone. These days, they realise the ancient PC they’re getting rid of is redundant, cannot be reused, and has to be disposed of safely.”

Buchel estimates that “more than half” of householders’ computers Comm-Tech receives can be reused, while from companies that figure rises to around 80 per cent.

However, the company still receives regular offers from businessmen offering to buy bulk quantities of equipment, working or not, for export overseas to India, Africa and Sri Lanka. “We’ve never felt comfortable using them – we’re not convinced by their claims of proper disposal and it seems they’re only out to make a fast buck.”

For more information see www.environment-agency.gov.uk/weee,
www.recycle-more.co.uk or www.comm-tech.org


[This article was originally published in The Big Issue, January 2010]


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