An environmental watchdog has uncovered evidence of a ‘significant’ trade in illegal waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) from Europe to developing countries.
And, the Basel Action Network, which carried out the two-year investigation into illegal WEEE exports, described the UK as the ‘worst violator’ of the ten nations probed.
The report has prompted the Environment Agency to issue guidance to exporters of potentially reusable goods to ensure that they are not shipping waste items illegally.
The study, findings of which were published today (7 February), saw investigators install GPS trackers in 314 old computers, printers, and monitors. These were then delivered to public collection points for disposal – some of which were local authority-run sites.
The items were spread between sites in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Poland, Spain, and the UK and then tracked to determine their end destination.
International waste regulations prohibit the export of waste electrical items not in a state fit for reuse to countries outside of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
However, reusable electrical goods can be exported as used electrical and electronic equipment (UEEE) – and there is a substantial trade in items such as television screens and computer monitors to parts of Africa and Asia where they are sold for reuse.
In the UK, the WEEE Regulations state that exporters must provide evidence that testing has been carried out on goods to ensure their suitability for export.
But, Basel Action Network found that despite not being fit for reuse, 19 (6%) of the tracked scrap items were exported, including 11 ‘very likely’ illegal shipments to the countries of Ghana, Hong Kong, Nigeria, Pakistan, Tanzania, Thailand, and Ukraine, outside of the EU.
Of these, five out of a total of 39 disposed of in the UK were exported – most of which went to Africa. Italy, Germany, Spain, Ireland, and Poland were also implicated in allowing shipments to developing countries, Basel Action Network claimed.
The organisation has estimated that the investigation may hint at an overall trade in as much as 352,474 tonnes per annum of WEEE moving from the EU to developing countries.
Commenting on the findings, Basel Action Network director Jim Puckett, said: “It appears that we have discovered a very significant stream of illegal shipments of hazardous consumer electronic scrap to vulnerable populations.
“This flies in the face of EU claims to make continuous efforts to implement a circular economy which can only responsibly exist by eliminating externalities and leakage from the system.”
The study has prompted action from the Environment Agency, which has sought to remind exporters of their responsibilities with regard to WEEE and UEEE.
“In the last three years, our inspections at ports across the country have seen a significant reduction in the volume of electrical waste attempted to be exported illegally, but hazardous waste exports still pose a serious risk and we will not hesitate to take enforcement action against those involved in illegal activity.”Spokesperson
Responding to the findings of the study, an Environment Agency spokesperson, said: “It is illegal to send hazardous, electrical waste abroad and doing so causes harm to people and the environment. We welcome the Basel Action Network’s investigation and have inspected all operators in the areas the illegal exports were made from. All sites were found to be small, low risk enterprises and we are satisfied that any illegal activity has ceased.
“In the last three years, our inspections at ports across the country have seen a significant reduction in the volume of electrical waste attempted to be exported illegally, but hazardous waste exports still pose a serious risk and we will not hesitate to take enforcement action against those involved in illegal activity.”
Mark Burrows-Smith, chief executive of the WEEE producer compliance scheme, Repic, added: “We have yet to digest the report in full. We will be performing our own investigations in light of these findings. That of the 39 devices fitted with trackers, five unrepairable LCDs were found to have been exported to non-OECD countries is unacceptable and deeply concerning.
“This type of activity is not something that Repic or our Producer Members condone, knowingly participate in, or want our brands to be associated with. For that reason, our contracts are quite clear that no whole units should be exported out of the UK. We support the recommendations concerning the need for greater enforcement in the UK, and it is good to note the relationship between the Environment Agency and BAN. In addition, we believe that more work needs to be undertaken to quantify unreported and illegal WEEE flows.”