Illegal WEEE Exports

May 31, 2011

One of the UK’s leading waste and recycling companies has been linked to the growing underground trade in e-waste after campaigner’s uncovered evidence that broken television sets deposited at the firm’s facilities were exported to Africa in contravention of regulations designed to stem the flow of electronic waste to developing countries.

Mersey-side based Environment Waste Controls (EWC), whose clients are reported to include ASDA, Tesco, Barclay’s, the NHS and Network Rail, has admitted that electronic equipment from its amenity sites in South London ended up in West Africa after being exported by a third party company and says it has taken steps to prevent this happening in the future.

Campaigners from the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) pinpoint the company in a report outlining Britain’s role in the global e-waste trade. The report details the findings of an 18 month investigation into how UK e-waste, much of it toxic, is ending up abroad where it is frequently processed in primitive conditions, posing a threat to the environment and human health.

As part of the probe, EIA staff visited civic amenity sites in Merton and Croydon where e-waste collection is run by EWC and were told that some of the electrical waste arriving at the facilities was routinely collected by a separate company who exported it to Nigeria and Ghana. Investigators were told at the Merton amenity site that at least seven tonnes of TVs were being sold to the third party company each week, at a cost of between £1.50 and £2.00 per set.

Under the Waste Electrical and Electronic (WEEE) Resources Regulations 2006, as long as the e-waste arriving at the sites was tested and found to be properly working its export would be permissible. However, the EIA hid tracking devices inside television sets which had been disabled beyond repair and left them at the Merton and Croydon sites. Several weeks later, according to the group, GPS signals indicated that one TV had been shipped to Nigeria, ending up near a well known e-waste recycling centre, and one was found to have arrived in Ghana. The EIA says this evidence demonstrates that proper checks were not always being carried out and that the broken TV sets should, under WEEE regulations, have been be sent for recycling in the UK or another developed country, not shipped to West Africa. The campaigners believe this is not an isolated example and say that intelligence suggests that British e-waste is regularly diverted from local authority sites into the black market.

The Environment Agency has a National Intelligence Team and an Environmental Crime Unit working to tackle the issues of illegal exports and has recently brought prosecutions against a number of individuals involved in e-waste trafficking. There are concerns however that funding for the Agency’s e-waste work will be slashed as part of current cost-cutting measures.