cc Flickr / Bert van Dijk
Ever thought about what happens to all the electrical or electronic products we consume and discard? Hairdryers, washing machines, vacuum cleaners or laptops are among the products that make our lives easier, more comfortable and even more productive. But they are also causing huge environmental concern.
The UN recently announced that WEEE – or Waste of Electrical and Electronic Equipment – makes up Europe’s largest growing waste stream. This type of product often contains precious metals, the mining of which causes damage to ecosystems and huge greenhouse gas emissions. They also often contain hazardous substances, which require care in handling and should never be released carelessly in the environment.
Now the EU has rules about the handling of electrical and electronic waste which should boost their recycling. But a new report on illegal trade inside the EU highlights worrying developments in this sector.
The report Countering WEEE Illegal Trade, produced by a collection of institutions including the UN and INTERPOL, reveals that only 35% of WEEE in the EU is collected and treated properly. It paints a picture of sub-standard treatments, improper collection and strategies that deliberately look to escape legal obligations and increase profits for waste managers. Illegal flows within the EU are estimated at 4.65 million tonnes in 2012, ten times the figure of illegal trade that is shipped outside the EU.
Apart from the obvious environmental damage this is causing, it is a missed economic opportunity. Europeans are the biggest producers of WEEE per capita in the world, estimated at 16kg per person per year, and the materials contained in these products could be re-used or recycled in new or re-manufactured products and sold on the market again.
The report recommends the setting up of international collaboration platforms to better monitor the product chain and boost enforcement of legal obligations. But, for us, this doesn’t look at the root of the WEEE problem: their design and the way they are used.
What about action to prevent waste in the first place? What about designing products so that their lifetime is longer and they are more easily repairable? And what about promoting leasing schemes, or equipment-sharing, which makes the most of a product and helps generate less waste? And what about removing hazardous substances from products so that their recycling is easier?
When the product is in use, it should be possible to repair it. Repair and maintenance services are shown to generate more jobs that recycling or waste disposal. They also help prevent the unnecessary consumption of more of the earth’s natural resources. It is in repair and new leasing schemes that we need to invest today.
Now, don’t get us wrong, this report is welcome. Very welcome. But it’s time to look beyond waste and to get at the source of the problem. We’ll solve the e-waste problem when we improve the way these products are designed and get smarter about how we use them.