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Can we fix our way out of the growing e-waste issue?

Digital Interviews 05 Dec 2022

E-waste is the fastest-growing waste stream in Europe. Less than 40% is recycled with most of it being incinerated or placed in landfills, resulting in a substantial loss of precious raw materials. What can be done to bridge this widening gap?

  • Who is responsible for addressing the growing e-waste problem?

The ever-growing issue of e-waste is one that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later. When broken or unwanted products are dumped in landfill, toxic substances like lead and mercury can leach into soil and water, leaving detrimental consequences for the planet. 

Importantly enough, electronics also contain valuable non-renewable resources mostly located in remote geographical areas and often scarce in quantity. If properly recycled, e-waste would help reintroduce precious raw materials contained in discarded goods back into the economy, reducing the amount of mining, and greenhouse gas emissions, while conserving our planet's precious natural resources.

But who is responsible for addressing this global issue? “Actually, we are all responsible,” began Hegarty. ”There are many actors who can influence that e-waste is collected, recovered and properly recycled.”  Just as a family where every member plays their part, the same should be for WEEE where each and every actor should hold responsibility based on their actual means of leverage. 

  • How is e-waste handled today?

Since being introduced 20 years ago, the WEEE Directive has laid the legal obligation for producers of electronic products to register and report WEEE flows, aimed at ensuring e-waste is treated correctly. However, the market reality today presents a worrying situation where some actors handling WEEE easily bypass such reporting obligations. “This makes it hard to monitor and track e-waste flows, and therefore to achieve collection and recycling targets and prevent waste undergoing substandard treatment or being illegally exported,” outlined Hegarty.

  • What could be done to address this e-waste tracking issue?

As we become increasingly reliant on electronic devices, the amount of electronic waste we produce is growing at an alarming rate. Here, legislation must be used to establish a more resilient, and properly functioning landscape for the treatment of WEEE, in order to create a fair environment for all WEEE actors. 

To truly enhance the levels of e-waste collected and reported, “all actors that influence WEEE collection rates, recovery and treatment must hold responsibility, based on their actual means of leverage,” Hegarty declared. Such an all-actors concept would put forward a European-wide legal footing for Member States to encourage proper handling of WEEE..

  • How could this be enforced? 

Over the last years, the volumes of WEEE collected and properly recycled have steadily increased through the investments made by industry and better recycling techniques have been developed through cooperation between producers and recyclers, alongside the introduction of European standards with respect to the collection, handling, storage, recycling, preparation for reuse and treatment of WEEE.

This brings us to two workable solutions. First, “all actors handling e-waste could be required to register and report quantities they collect, recover and recycle in line with European treatment standards, this way contributing to the attainment of WEEE collection recovery and recycling targets,” pointed Hegarty. In alternative, “any actor handling e-waste could be legally required to handover the WEEE they collect to producer responsibility organisations to manage it in line with high-quality standards,” concluded Hegarty. 

Importantly, both solutions would require strong and effective control and enforcement across EU Member states to truly inherit tangible growth in terms of how e-waste is treated in Europe moving forward. 

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