Efforts To Block Illegal E-Waste Shipments Failing

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Lack of funding for the UK Environment Agency and Defra could exacerbate the e-waste problem, warn experts

The illegal shipment of electronic waste to developing countries is continuing, despite efforts to block the trade which has health and environmental implications for the countries and people who process the material when it reaches its destination, according to reports.

An investigation by the BBC this week reveals the continuing extent of the problem, which sees waste computers, household electronics as well as other electrical items shipped to Africa and other developing nations to be broken down, often under very poor working conditions.

Only 3 Percent Checked

According to sources cited by the BBC, Europe’s busiest port, Rotterdam, is only able to check around 3 percent of the containers that leave its facilities. “Risk profiles are always based on what happened before and you’re actually often one step behind,” Carl Huijbregts of the Dutch environment ministry’s inspectorate told the BBC.

Although the lack of checks at ports is part of the problem, the other main contributor is the failure of recycling laws such as the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive. Only about one third of Europe’s e-waste is treated according to WEEE, the EU admits.

And it is not only Europe which is struggling to contain the e-waste problem. According to figures cited in the BBC report, as much as 80 percent of American e-waste is exported to China through ports such as Hong Kong. The US is not a signatory to the 1989 Basel Convention, which was introduced in 1994 in Europe to try and stem the flow of waste tech.

Environmental experts also claim it’s important to make sure that any second-hand technology sent to developing countries by charities is actually what it claims to be and is disposed of cleanly at the end of its life.

UK charity Computer Aid, which specialises in refurbishing donated PCs from businesses and sending them to the developing world, has been campaigning for more powers for the UK Environment Agency to be able to better police the flow of e-waste.

Most recently, the charity’s chief executive Tony Roberts criticised the government’s decision to close-down the The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Advisory Body (WAB) – the body set-up to oversee the implementation of WEEE in the UK.

Funding Cuts

“The new government says it wants to bring the responsibilities of the WEEE Advisory Board back into government ‘where there is more accountability’. However the government agencies that these responsibilites might be ‘in-sourced’ to are themselves suffering cuts of their own,” said Roberts.

Computer Aid contends that both the Department for Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Environment Agency have been hit by spending cuts and would struggle to cope with additional workload from the WAB.  “DEFRA must make £162 million in ’savings’ which it says will necessitate cuts across the board that cannot be achieved simply by limiting new recruitment, “ he said. “The Environment Agency is DEFRA’s watchdog body and has been doing the job of overseeing and policing the implementation of the WEEE Directive. Now the EA is certain to have to cut its staff, and reduce its ability to effectively police and prosecute.”

The WEEE directive was adopted by the EC in 2003 but wasn’t actually enacted and enforced in UK law until mid-2007. EC authorities actually went as far as to issue a written warning to the UK government for dragging its heels over implementing the legislation. The directive forces producers – such as IT manufacturers and even importers – to take financial responsibility for the recycling and disposal of a proportion of waste tech dependent on their size and contribution.

The problem of e-waste could also be exacerbated by increasing amounts of computer and other technology equipment being consumed in developing countries. In February, the UNEP (the United Nations Environment Programme) warned that electronics sales in China, India and large portions of Africa and Latin America are expected to rise dramatically over the next 10 years, leading to a build-up of hazardous electronic waste.

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