• Peter Watts
  • 23 May 2012

Are friends electric too?

Dealing with electronic and electrical waste (e-waste) is often seen as particularly onerous by business in the UK and an area in which legislation has not performed well in protecting the environment. 

There is a huge black market in e-waste, with large amounts leaving the UK and the EU’s borders illegally, meaning that the waste is still ending up where it shouldn’t be. Newspapers, documentaries and NGOs unveil scenes in the developing world such as children heating up circuit boards over an open flame or dunking electronic components in acid tanks in order to extract valuable metals from them. 

We generate close to 1.5 million tonnes of e-waste in the UK each year, of which currently approximately a third is treated appropriately within the boundaries of the EU, about 13% to landfill, and the remainder is exported abroad where it undergoes sub-standard treatment in locations including India, Bangladesh, Ghana, China and Nigeria. These countries are traditional destinations for e-waste because the cost of recovery and recycling can be as little as 1/20 of that in richer countries.  

E-waste is associated with a wide range of environmental issues, including degradation of land, water quality and human health. This is largely due to e-waste releasing quantities of heavy metals and toxic organic materials into the environment when they are processed in a way without proper environmental and health protection controls.   

The environmental problems with e-waste are a double-edged sword – as well as the degradation from the disposal of this waste there is also the issue that the production of electronic equipment is resource-intensive and uses many rare metals that are in short supply. These so-called ‘technology metals’ like indium and niobium are extracted from the earth and are used in a wide range of modern digital devices and green technologies. With the increased pervasiveness of microchips and computing into all aspects of our daily lives, the demand on these is increasing, and the supply of which is seen by many commentators as a potential ‘resource crunch’ just over the horizon. 

There has been a move to Producer Responsibility legislation internationally – and many countries have implemented laws that seek to make the producer of the waste finance its appropriate disposal by some legislative mechanism. In Europe we have the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive, which became the UK WEEE Regulations early in 2007.  

Since we used to landfill almost all of our e-waste, this has been partly effective.  However, the process as it stands is clearly not working – organisations complain about excessive bureaucracy and unfair distribution of costs. One of the aims of the original EU Directive was to make manufacturers directly responsible for the disposal of their waste so that they designed products that could be more readily dismantled and recycled / reused at end of life. With the exception of a few limited case studies, this hasn’t really been the case, particularly since the UK has gone down the route of shared producer responsibility where the financial burden of dealing with e-waste is shared amongst manufacturers. 

An interesting coordination between major electronics manufacturers and environmental NGOs – called ‘Individual Producer Responsibility Works’ – has made a statement asking for the legislation to be changed to address this.

The EU WEEE Directive has been recast and the WEEE Regulations are under consultation in the UK. With new legislation to come into force in 2014 to address the shortcomings, one of the definite changes will be greater enforcement to prevent the illegal export of e-waste and higher collection targets – it has been proposed that countries will collect up to 85% of their e-waste by 2020. It will be interesting to see what happens.