Sam Morgan writes on the Engineering & Technology website about the current situation in the EU concerning e-waste and what can be done to improve effectiveness.
View from Brussels: Make e-haste not e-waste
EU efforts to collect and recycle electronic waste are among the most effective in the world but there is plenty of work left to be done, a new report warns. Brussels will come up with new rules later this year and it will be up to countries to stick to them.
E-waste is an area that deserves scrutiny. Growing attention to circular economy policies could mean that the days of ‘throwaway culture’ are numbered and consumers will no longer end up trading in smartphones and laptops without a second thought.
The EU’s Green Deal focuses a lot of efforts on recycling and reuse, which has the potential to curb greenhouse gas emissions substantially. Making new products is more often than not an energy-intensive process.
Money also matters. According to estimate, a tonne of discarded smartphones will contain more gold than a tonne of gold ore. Other precious metals can also be extracted from our unwanted devices and reused.
In order to help the EU come up with its next generation of waste rules – due out at the end of this year – the bloc’s auditors looked at how current policies are working and where there are shortcomings.
One of the auditors explained that “the collection and recovery of e-waste in the EU has improved over time, and the EU currently recycles about 80 per cent of the e-waste it collects.”
Joëlle Elvinger added though that “the collection, recycling and reuse of e-waste are not equally effective in all EU member states, and could be further increased.”
It is a common problem in the EU when it comes to environmental legislation in particular, when countries differ greatly in what they are willing or able to do, be it waste collection, clean energy capacity building or electric car charging installation.
Green rules often build in different baselines, starting points and ‘burden-sharing’ mechanisms to neutralise the differences between countries but it is a complex exercise in number-crunching that does not always pay off.
For example, the bloc’s renewable energy target of 20 per cent for 2020 was criticised by environmental groups for going too soft on some countries, some of whom ended up meeting their individual benchmarks years ahead of schedule.
According to the auditors, the opposite is true for e-waste, where the targets may have been too strict. Data is slow to come in because of the nature of waste collection and recycling but so far only two out of 27 countries have met their goals for 2019.
The report suggests that the European Commission needs to focus on details rather than just setting targets in its new rules later this year, and insists that its findings are “potential food for thought”.
‘Eco-design’ principles – which dictate that products should be manufactured so they are easier to reuse, repair or recycle – should be extended to a wider range of items, the auditors suggest.
Currently, they do not apply to products like phones and laptops. Appliances like air conditioners and fridges do fall under the rules, while energy efficiency standards are also factored in to crank up their sustainability factor.
There are also other challenges the Commission will have to contend with, including how “the EU deals with the mismanagement of e-waste, illegal shipments and other criminal activities”, according to the report.
Criminal activities include removing the valuable components from products and then illegally dumping the less lucrative leftovers, as well as illegally shipping the waste to non-EU countries, in order to avoid more expensive processing fees within Europe.
This kind of crime has a very low detection rate and prosecutions are “statistically irrelevant” as a result, according to another report by the European Council. Criminals, essentially, can get away with it rather easily.
One popular way to ship hazardous e-waste to non-EU countries – which is illegal if they are not members of the OECD – is to classify the shipments as used products. The report suggests that this is an area that needs attention.
Ultimately, there is a lot of low-hanging fruit that the EU can pick when it comes to making waste rules more effective, beyond simply setting higher targets, which is often a zero sum game.
There are plenty of other environmental laws that will be reviewed this year by Brussels, many of which are more politically sensitive than waste collection. It could be an opportunity for EU officials to fly under the radar and put in place rules that really make a difference.