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The need for Zero Electric and Electronic Waste in Europe

by Joan Marc Simon
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Can you believe that from all electric and electronic waste generated in Europe only 19% is recycled? Yes, in times where materials are more and more scarce and the prices continue to rise and when the EU is almost completely dependent on foreign supply for metals and rare earths we still afford to let 81% of these resources escape from being reintroduced in the production process in Europe.

Today more than 50% of the WEEE generated in Europe follows unofficial collection routes, sometimes leading to illegal export and improper treatments. E-waste contains hazardous substances such as heavy metals and chemicals which can damage human health and the environment especially when treated incorrectly. Unfortunately there are plenty of well-documented examples of the environmental and health damage that this exported e-waste causes in Africa and Asia.

But also, if we let 81% of WEEE escape Europe this means that with it we let a big amount of manufacturing industry and jobs escape. This is like having a gold mine and letting others come and take the gold away –albeit paying a high price in health and environmental damage- whilst at the same time complain that the economic crisis is taking the jobs away. Action is needed to reverse these figures.

Action has to go inte direction of setting standards for WEEE recycling but also incentives to redesign them. An important reason why e-waste is not recycled is precisely because electric and electronic items are not well-designed. If designed differently it would be a lot easier and cheaper to manipulate WEEE to extract the raw materials.

This is why the EU is working on an update of the WEEE directive. On the 3rd of February the Environment Committee of the European Parliament voted in favour of an ambitious collection target based on WEEE generated, setting standards on e-waste management and enabling financial incentives for optimized design. The European Parliament requires member states to address financial resources to increase collection and also asks for a better consideration for nanomaterials in treatment processes.

The problem is that in the current economic crisis most EU member states only think on cutting expenditure and sometimes fail to see the hidden benefits of economy booster that can represent investing in capturing more WEEE. The economic booster works in several ways: it creates local jobs in collection and reprocessing, it saves costs in buying new raw materials and saves extraction, processing and transport emissions related to new production.

Sending Zero Electric and Electronic Waste to landfill and incineration just makes sense but turning this waste into resource is an indispensable part of the new industrial revolution. Maximising material productivity is the way forward and Zero Waste is a vital part of it.

“If we let 81% of WEEE escape Europe this means that with it we let a big amount of manufacturing industry and jobs escape.”

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