Europe's dirty hardware secret: 6.2 million tonnes of wasted old kit

According to a new report, around two-thirds of end-of-life hardware in the European Union isn't ending up where it's meant to.

Next time you have to organise a desktop PC refresh for your business, spare a thought for where that abandoned hardware should - and will - end up.

The European Union generated 9.5 million tonnes of discarded computers, smartphones, TVs, appliances and other equipment in 2012, but the majority of that e-waste didn't wind up in official collection or recycling systems.

About 6.2 million tonnes of waste electric and electronic equipment (WEEE) in the EU were either exported illegally, recycled incorrectly, scavenged for parts, or simply dumped in the trash, according to a recent study (PDF) by the CWIT (Countering WEEE Illegal Trade) project.

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"Electronic and electrical equipment represents the fastest-growing flow of the world's waste streams," said Pascal Leroy, secretary-general of the WEEE Forum. "The weight of Europe's mismanaged e-waste alone equals that of a 10m high brick wall stretching from Oslo to the toe of Italy."

This massive problem is not only economic, but environmental too: old equipment can contain hazardous chemicals such as lead in batteries and mercury in flat TV screens.

An estimated 1.3 million tonnes of the e-waste was exported out of Europe, including about 700,000 tonnes of equipment that was still usable. However, a very large portion of the broken e-waste, 4.3 million tonnes, was mismanaged within Europe itself in an effort to dodge the cost of recycling it: CWIT estimates that between €150m to €600m in hardware recycling costs were avoid this way.

Then, there's simple theft: many electronic items contain rare metals that took a lot of resources to procure. Scavengers are making off with some of those metals before items can be collected. CWIT places the value of that missing material at between €800m to €1.7bn.

The study makes a number of recommendations to help solve this problem, including an EU-wide ban on scrap metal transactions using cash, the formation of national environmental security task forces with multiple agencies involved, and the mandatory treatment of e-waste according to approved standards with member nations reporting results to the EU.

These recommendations are expected to play a role in the European Commission's effort to develop ambitious "circular economy" legislation that aims to eliminate waste by reusing, refurbishing, and recycling existing products and materials. The commission has been accepting public feedback on the issue all summer and plans to present a new circular economy strategy by the end of this year.

Jaco Huisman, the scientific coordinator of the CWIT project, said the results of the study provide the important data to make more effective policies, not only in Europe but elsewhere. "The US, for example, has not ratified the Basel convention," Huisman said, referring to the treaty intended to reduce the movement of hazardous waste across borders, "and its e-waste is subject to far less oversight than it is in Europe."

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