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Containing the flow of Europe’s electronic waste

Submitted by on 23 Nov 2010 – 17:25

One million mobile phones contain 250kg of silver, 24 kg of gold, 9kg of palladium and 9 tonnes of copper.

By Karl-Heinz Florenz, Member of the European Parliament

Waste of electric and electronic equipment (WEEE) is one of the biggest environmental challenges in the EU. Ever faster technical innovations lead to more and more products becoming obsolete, producing between 8.3 and 9.1 million tonnes of E-waste per year, and growing. Some calculations expect as much as 12.3 million tonnes of WEEE by 2020.

Take mobile phones as an example. Over one billion mobile phones were sold worldwide in 2006. In 2008, this figure had already reached 1.18 billion. By the end of that year, over 4 billion cell phone users existed worldwide. What implication does this have? One million mobile phones contain 250 kg of silver, 24 kg of gold, 9 kg of palladium and 9 tonnes of copper. Recycling would therefore recover a lot of secondary raw materials. The collection of electric and electronic waste is not for its own sake but to handle our limited resources responsibly. This is the reason why I rather prefer to speak of “resources” than of “waste”.

Finally, the production of electric and electronic products is a very resource-intensive activity. The production of these devices puts a bigger burden on the environment than the production of other household materials. A UN study found out that the manufacturing of a computer and its screen takes at least 240 kg of fossil fuels, 22 kg of chemicals and 1.5 tonnes of water – more than the weight of a car, or a hippo for that matter.

But we are not only loosing a lot of secondary raw materials by illegally shipping WEEE out of Europe. Most of this old equipment ends up in Africa, with Ghana and Nigeria being the top destinations. In 2005, 15.000 tonnes of colour TVs ended up in these two countries. And these are only televisions – other electric and electronic products are not counted in. The electronic and electronic products still contain toxic substances like lead, mercury or cadmium. Taking them apart without proper precautionary measures in order to recover precious materials can pose serious risks for human health and the environment such as atmospheric pollution or groundwater contamination, not to mention burning these products as is sometimes the case.

What can we do in order to prevent the loss of the electric and electronic products with all its consequences?

As far as European legislation is concerned, the best answer is a high collection target. At the moment EU member states have to reach 4 kg per inhabitant per year of separately collected WEEE. Some member states like Sweden, Germany and Austria have reached this target. Other member states have reported next to nothing. While these figures are from 2005 and 2006, where the target was not yet mandatory, they are nonetheless important.

Every member states has different amounts of electronic and electric products that are sold, with some of them having non-saturated growing markets. Therefore, a Europe-wide percentage target that is linked to the amount of sold products in the Member State seems to be more appropriate and just.

The target has to be challenging for the member state. Why? Because it is the only possibility to oblige them to control and monitor all waste routes, pay special attention to illegal shipments and to ensure that as many old products as possible are collected separately. Such a process lies within the sole power and competence of the Member States.

The way to reach the target-either through giving incentives or setting up bans – has not been decided by the European legislator. Every member state has different habits in handling waste and not every method works in every country as effective as in the other one. This is the reason why a so called “one fits all” solution does not seem to be appropriate. Nonetheless, in order to meet the final target-avoiding the harm of human beings and the environment and at the same time preventing the waste of resources-member states have to be challenged to do more. The current results are not sufficient and the problem is too serious, particularly regarding the fact that this “waste“ stream is growing so rapidly-and it will become more and more serious especially with regard to the lack of raw materials we will face in the future.