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Europe Mismanages 10 Times the Amount of E-Waste It Exports

Europe's official collecting and recycling systems account for just over one-third of its overall used and discarded electronics

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Europe Mismanages 10 Times the Amount of E-Waste It Exports

Broken electronics shipped off to foreign shores can lead to environmental damage and health risks for scavenging workers. But a European Union-funded report has found that mismanagement and illegal trading of electronic waste within Europe itself can involve 10 times the amount of e-waste that ends up as undocumented exports to other countries.

Theft of circuit boards and precious metals in e-waste accounted for between $877 million and $1.86 billion in lost value for legitimate waste processors in Europe, according to the findings of a 2-year project titled Countering Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Illegal Trade. About 4.7 million metric tons of e-waste ended up being mismanaged or lost due to criminal activity within Europe. By comparison, Europe exported 400,000 metric tons of nonfunctional e-waste and 900,000 metric tons of used but functioning equipment.

“The weight of Europe’s mismanaged e-waste alone equals that of a 10 meter high brick wall stretching from Oslo to the toe of Italy,” said Pascal Leroy, Secretary-General of the WEEE Forum, in a United Nations University press release.

Overall, Europe’s official collection and recycling systems accounted for only 35 percent of the used and waste electronics thrown away there in 2012: just 3.3 million metric tons out of 9.5 million metric tons. That suggests plenty of room for improvement in handling the other 6.2 million metric tons of discarded electronics.

The report included several suggestions for tightening up on Europe’s handling of e-waste. First, it recommended setting up an Operational Intelligence Management System to monitor organized crime’s suspected involvement in illegal e-waste trading. Most current evidence suggests that “e-waste crime” is committed by individual traders and companies on an ad-hoc basis.

A second step the report suggests is the establishment of a National Environmental Security Task Force to coordinate law enforcement investigations into the handling of e-waste. It also proposes banning cash transactions in the scrap metal trade across all European Union countries. 

The world throws away about 41.8 million metric tons of electronics every year, according to a United Nations University study in 2014. But an earlier study by the Solving the E-Waste Problem (StEP) Initiative points to the e-waste problem only becoming larger in the coming years. Proper management of e-waste streams represents a necessity if engineers hope to get a shot at recycling e-waste in better ways.

The Conversation (0)
This photograph shows a car with the words “We Drive Solar” on the door, connected to a charging station. A windmill can be seen in the background.

The Dutch city of Utrecht is embracing vehicle-to-grid technology, an example of which is shown here—an EV connected to a bidirectional charger. The historic Rijn en Zon windmill provides a fitting background for this scene.

We Drive Solar

Hundreds of charging stations for electric vehicles dot Utrecht’s urban landscape in the Netherlands like little electric mushrooms. Unlike those you may have grown accustomed to seeing, many of these stations don’t just charge electric cars—they can also send power from vehicle batteries to the local utility grid for use by homes and businesses.

Debates over the feasibility and value of such vehicle-to-grid technology go back decades. Those arguments are not yet settled. But big automakers like Volkswagen, Nissan, and Hyundai have moved to produce the kinds of cars that can use such bidirectional chargers—alongside similar vehicle-to-home technology, whereby your car can power your house, say, during a blackout, as promoted by Ford with its new F-150 Lightning. Given the rapid uptake of electric vehicles, many people are thinking hard about how to make the best use of all that rolling battery power.

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