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WEEE trafficking 'funds other crime'

Criminal groups trafficking waste electronics are involved in other crimes such as theft, human trafficking, fraud, drugs, firearms and money laundering, according to new research on UK cases.

In the report Tackling Britain’s Dirty Secret, which was commissioned by the Environmental Services Association Education Trust, consultancy Eunomia said illegal exports offered a consistent and relatively “low risk” income stream, which could be used to fund other criminal activities.

“Illegal export provides the clearest evidence of waste crime’s increasing role as part of a criminal gang’s portfolio of illegal activity,” the report stated.

It noted that WEEE is often exported because it can be dismantled and treated overseas without having to apply high environmental standards. This makes the process both cheaper and far more damaging than legitimate treatment.

Consultancy Amec estimated that the overall economic impact of illegal waste exports from the UK was £8.7m in 2012, with loss in profits for domestic WEEE treatment facilities accounting for over half of it.

Illegal exports are most likely to occur where waste is considered valuable in receiving countries. Consultancy Amec found that the wastes that had most value in overseas markets were WEEE, end-of-life vehicles and used tyres.

There has been widespread press coverage of illegal WEEE exports to Ghana, Nigeria and Pakistan. Eunomia said the methods used to dispose of waste electronics, such as burning, resulted in harmful conditions for workers.

At some WEEE processing sites overseas, harmful chemicals including arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, lead and mercury are present at high levels and can lead to respiratory, digestive, and nervous system problems.

There has been a small rise in successful prosecutions against illegal exporters of waste in England (see table below). However, Eunomia argued this is not an indication of illegal exports increasing or decreasing, or whether illegal activities have been dealt with more effectively.

Prosecution Outcomes for Illegal Exporters in England

Philip Morton, chief executive of compliance scheme REPIC, said: “there is a clear financial incentive for criminals to export WEEE under the guise of reusable EEE or to mask it as something else and ship it as anything other than WEEE. To deal with WEEE properly sometimes generates income but more often it has a cost whereas illegal export is always more profitable or criminals wouldn’t do it.

“The recast Directive and the new UK Regulations seek to address the problem in a number of ways:”

  • Higher targets, which means more needs to be captured internally in each Member State so logically less should leak
  • A driver to recover and recycle the trace quantities of critical raw materials contained in WEEE for improved resource efficiency and resource security within Europe
  • Tighter export controls for legitimate export of working EEE
  • Removal of evidence trading which means there is now a clear audit trail for treated WEEE in the UK and with that visibility PCSs can now influence the route and quality of treatment
  • Waste crime enforcement funding can return five-fold benefits, according to the report, which calculated that waste crime could be costing the UK economy up to £808m.

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