How to combat the growing menace of e-waste

July 1, 2011

Every year, thousands of containers of e-waste make their way from the UK to dumping grounds in Africa, China and India, despite import bans and the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive.

Sham traders are pretending to be legitimate reuse and recycling organisations and enticing unsuspecting businesses and local authorities to use them for the disposal of their electrical equipment. At the ports, these traders falsely claim their consignments consist of reusable equipment destined for productive reuse in developing countries, when in fact the contents of their shipments consist of extremely hazardous e-waste.

This toxic trade is driven by the motive of profit, but the actual cost is borne by the environment and the people who disassemble the equipment. Electronics contain a wealth of valuable resources, including gold, silver and platinum as well as many hazardous substances, such as mercury, lead and arsenic. Since electronic waste is toxic, it must be treated extremely carefully when recovering the valuable resources within, so as to avoid significant health and environmental damage.

In the UK we have had the WEEE legislation in place since 2007. The Environment Agency, who are responsible for policing the directive, have been taking some steps to prosecute companies found to be in breach of the legislation. However, they do not do anywhere near enough, as was again brought to our attention in the recent shocking reports by BBC Panorama and the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) who tracked shipments of our UK e-waste to developing countries. The fact that this is still happening highlights gaps in existing in the legislation and its enforcement that desperately need to be filled.