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Illegal UK WEEE exports 'worst in Europe'

Up to 352,474 tonnes a year of waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) is being illegally exported from Europe to developing countries, according to watchdog the Basel Action Network (BAN).

The report Holes in the Circular Economy: WEEE Leakage from Europe monitored 314 items during a two-year period with secretly installed GPS tracking.

All the items tracked were hazardous waste, not suitable for reuse, and included cathode ray tubes (CRTs), mercury-bearing lamps and circuit boards containing high levels of lead, tin, and brominated flame retardants.

At the start of the study the items were distributed across consumer recycling centres in 10 EU member states.

Of the 314 items, 19 were shipped away from their country of origin despite not being fit for reuse. Of these, 11 were illegally shipped to developing countries. Using this sample, the authors arrived at the headline figure for illegal European WEEE exports.

Jim Puckett, one of the report’s authors, said: “The export rates identified in this study following real WEEE in real time remain far too high when one considers that we have only been able to put an eye on the tip of an iceberg of the vast quantities of toxic WEEE generated per annum in the EU.

“When extrapolated, as we have shown, the figures represent truly frightening amounts of EU leakage.”

The EU country exporting the most WEEE was the UK, with five items in the study ending up in developing countries: three to Nigeria, and one each to Tanzania and Pakistan. Next came Denmark and Ireland with three exported items each.

Hazardous waste exported from the EU to developing countries such as Nigeria, Ghana, Tanzania, Romania, Ukraine, Pakistan, Thailand and Hong Kong comprised nine LCD monitors, one CRT monitor and one desktop computer.

Africa was targeted by EU WEEE exporters the most, receiving seven exported units – five to Nigeria, one to Ghana and one to Tanzania.

Puckett added: “Weaker economies and communities are being exploited by richer ones, which are now intent on pressing for ‘cradle to cradle’ and ‘waste is food’ while turning a blind-eye to the fact that ‘recycling’ and ‘reuse’ and now ‘circular economy’ are increasingly being misappropriated as green passwords to a global waste circus and horror show.

“Indeed, we are already hearing the EU and industry lobbyists using the term circular economy as a justification for allowing more toxic exports to move to disproportionately burden the global south with difficult-to-recycle toxic WEEE.”

Overall, the EU exported 6% of WEEE compared with 40% in the US, according to a BAN report two years ago, although the US has no regulations forbidding exports.

The other countries included in the BAN report, not already mentioned, were Germany, Austria, Belgium, Spain, Hungary and Poland.

Report recommendations

1. EU to ensure that poorer communities are never exploited and justified by a ’technocratic definition’ of, and desire to achieve, a circular economy.

2. EU and member states to enhance their intelligence-gathering on illegal WEEE exports, utlising port investigators and GPS tracking, particularly in the UK and Italy.

3. Improved intelligence and enforcement collaboration between the EU and target countries in Africa, eastern Europe, Latin America and Asia.

4. More aggressive prosecutions with serious penalties to prove a deterrent.

5. All countries to should ratify the Basel Ban Amendment and all African countries to ratify the Bamako Convention.

6. Ghana, Nigeria, Pakistan and all other target countries on the Basel Convention’s Annex VII should prohibit all imports of non-functional electronics. The residual effects far outweigh any benefits from import, as China has learned.

7. EU to amend the WEEE Directive to remove the exceptions found in paragraph 2 of Annex VI.

8. The EU halt its promotion of the repair loophole (paragraph 31b) of the Basel Convention Technical Guidelines on Electronic Waste, which undermines the Basel Convention, and Waste Shipment Regulation and WEEE Directive as well.

9. All WEEE processors in Europe should become certified to the Cenelec, WeeeLabex or e-Stewards Standards.

10. Private companies and institutions, and certification schemes such as WeeeLabex and Cenelec, that generate, process or monitor WEEE in Europe should utilise GPS tracking.

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