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Europe's illegal exports of WEEE '4% of total market'

A major two-year study of waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) across Europe has found that around 4% is exported from the EU illegally – but fears that organised crime is heavily involved in this activity have not been substantiated.

This is the first time a reliable figure has been put on the scale of the problem, with those responsible for the research, the Countering WEEE Illegal Trade (CWIT) project, saying it is significantly less than it had expected. The CWIT was established in September 2013 to:

  • estimate the volume of WEEE generated in Europe
  • identify parties involved in the export market
  • examine the WEEE legal framework and its implementation
  • analyse the involvement of organised crime
  • assess the methods, destinations and routes used for illicit shipments

The report was launched at an event in Westminster held by the WEEE Forum, an association representing 32 European producer compliance schemes, including Repic from the UK. WEEE Forum’s partners on the CWIT project include Interpol and two United Nations departments.

Repic chief executive Philip Morton praised the CWIT for producing comprehensive findings and making valuable recommendations (see below).

Based on data for 2012, researchers found that barely one-third (3.3 million tonnes) of all the WEEE discarded in Europe ended up in the officially reported amounts of collection and recycling systems.

Of the remaining 6.15 million tonnes:

  • 1.5 million were exported (1.3 million undocumented)
  • 3.15 million were recycled under non-compliant conditions within Europe
  • 750,000 tonnes were scavenged for valuable parts (such as fridge compressors)
  • 750,000 tonnes went into residual waste collection

The 1.3 million tonnes that left the EU in undocumented exports do not differentiate used equipment from waste and are therefore considered likely to be illegal. Around 70% of these shipments are for reuse and repair rather than dumped as waste.

The remaining 30% of WEEE is nearly 400,000 tonnes, hence the 4% figure as a percentage of the 9.45 million tonnes flowing through Europe in a year. The CWIT says this tallies with data from the EU Network for the Implementation and Enforcement of Environmental Law, which estimates illegal WEEE shipments annually at 250,000-700,000 tonnes.

But the CWIT says that while organised crime is involved generally in illegal waste supply chains in some member states, “suspicions of the involvement of organised crime in WEEE are not corroborated”.

The report points out that the new estimate for illegal exports is only a tenth of the materials and products which are mismanaged or illegally traded within the borders of Europe.

“The widespread scavenging of both products and components, and the theft of valuable components such as circuitboards and precious metals from e-waste, means that there is a serious economic loss of materials and resources [for] compliant e-waste processors in Europe.”

The CWIT calls for better guidelines and formal definitions to help authorities distinguish used, electronic and electrical equipment from WEEE, and penalties must be harmonised to simplify enforcement across the EU.

Recommendations include:

  • an EU-wide ban on cash transactions in the scrap metal trade
  • mandatory treatment of WEEE according to approved standards, and dedicated mandatory reporting of treatment and de-pollution results
  • better targeting, more inspection and national monitoring
  • an intelligence system to support enforcement and identify the risks associated with organised crime groups
  • collaboration and co-ordination of regulatory efforts at national, regional and international levels

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