UK is worst violator of e-waste exports, says watchdog group

Many EU countries are illegally exporting electronic waste to Africa and Asia, according to a two-year study by the global environmental watchdog organisation Basel Action Network (BAN).

BAN has released the findings of a two-year study in 10 EU countries, in which it used GPS trackers to discover illegal waste exports from government-approved takeback stations Europe to Africa and Asia. GPS trackers were secretly installed in a total 314 old computers, printers and monitors: 19 of those items – or six per cent – were exported, including 11 very likely illegal shipments to Ghana, Hong Kong, Nigeria, Pakistan, Tanzania, Thailand and Ukraine, which is outside the EU.

While the numbers might seem low, if extrapolated, they would total 352,474 metric tonnes of waste electrical and electronic equipment or WEEE per year moving from the EU to developing countries, enough to fit 17,466 large-size intermodal shipping containers. If loaded onto trucks, the trucks would stretch back-to-back for 401 kilometres.

“It appears that we have discovered a very significant stream of illegal shipments of hazardous consumer electronic scrap to vulnerable populations,” said BAN Director Jim Puckett on the publication of the report, Holes in the Circular Economy: WEEE Leakage from Europe.

“This flies in the face of EU claims to make continuous efforts to implement a circular economy which can only responsibly exist by eliminating externalities and leakage from the system.”

According to the report, of the 10 countries studied (Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Poland, Spain, and the UK), the UK was the worst violator with five exported items, most of which went to Africa. Italy, Germany, Spain, Ireland, and Poland were also implicated in allowing shipments to developing countries.

BAN then visited some of the destinations, where it found that e-waste was often subjected to substandard, dangerous recycling operations, where workers and the larger community alike were exposed to pollution through smashing, burning, melting, or chemical acid stripping methods used to extract copper, gold, steel, and aluminium.

The global environmental watchdog organisation fears that recent efforts to create a “repairables loophole” in the Basel Convention will lead to further low-value electronic exports and spell the end for a circular economy.

“There is far too much bemoaning illegal exports, while at the very same time, the EU is hypocritically working to make such dangerous exports legal,” Puckett said. “The answer to criminal activity is not legalising that activity but rather improving enforcement to ensure the future health of Europe is not dependent on poisoning the rest of the world.”

Image credit: BAN via Flickr

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