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Why Europe fails to recycle e-waste and some solutions

The latest headline: only one third of European e-waste is being properly recycled. (The headline came on the most dead day for news we can imagine, the last Sunday in August). Most European e-waste is processed by unregulated informal channels or ends up in landfill.

Essentially, despite the best efforts of legislators, regulators and law enforcement, in Europe, we continue to dispose of e-waste in the most inefficient and dangerous ways. Right here, in our own back garden.

This is not news to us, having worked three years in our communities, helping people prevent electronic waste at the grassroots level.

Unlike this new report, and the hand-wringing academics and officials who wrote it, we do not believe our e-waste problem is an issue of “enforcement”. They frame informal processing of waste as “criminal”. Their framing even make the average citizen who bins a battery-powered device sound like a wrong-doer.

Seeing things from a citizen perspective

From our perspective, and from the perspective of most citizens, it is very difficult to know what to do with electronic waste. If you are very observant, perhaps you’ve seen this symbol on the back of something you bought.


So those of us who are paying attention know what we are NOT supposed to do, and so often we simply use that as an excuse not to act. (Hence a common practice of device-hoarding. So many people bring long-dead devices to our Restart Parties!)

But even those of us who are paying attention have little functional understanding of what happens to electronics and electricals at the end of life, and how to dispose of them properly.

Raise your hand if you know what the WEEE Directive is! Raise your hand if you know what WEEE is! (It means waste electrical and electronic equipment).

Making things more transparent

Did you know that you probably paid for the disposal of your e-stuff at purchase, in EU member states? Essentially, the “WEEE Directive” is an EU Directive that requires manufacturers or distributors to pay for the disposal of our e-stuff. It is implemented differently in every EU member state.

When we asked our Councillor to ask civil servants to explain in simple terms how e-waste collection works and how this is paid for, we were disappointed but not surprised by the result. Confusing and hard to follow the money trail.

In this particular local authority, waste management is no longer handled by local authority directly, it is handled by a “statutory body” representing seven local authorities. This body then subcontracts e-waste collection to a logistics company (whose name is on the skips in the recycling centre). This logistics company runs what is called a “producer compliance scheme” which is paid for by manufacturers. Within this scheme, the logistics company then delivers the waste to a recycler (called an AATF or Authorised Approved Treatment Facility). These recyclers are tasked with “providing evidence” of the tonnages of e-waste that is recycled.

But this is not the end of the story! Even more confusing is that many recyclers trade different kinds of e-waste before the annual accounting period to meet collection targets.

So if we were to ask: Where did my old toaster go? Who paid for each stage? Who got paid at each stage? We would have very little idea.

Clearly, there are many vested interests who do not want us to know who is profiting and their profit margins. (In fact, WEEE tender documents often are protected from FOI request by “commercial exemption” in the UK.)

Instead of trying to criminalise small-time scrappers, and focusing on what happens to e-waste that slips outside the system, we need to radically rethink the citizen experience of recycling electronics.


Imagine if, on your receipt or invoice you were able to see a breakdown of the approximate costs of recycling of your gadget – the collection and recycling, and an explanation of how our recycling system REALLY works. Imagine if on your receipt there was information about the value of the raw materials and minerals in your gadget, alongside a list of the potential environmental harm with incorrect disposal.

Imagine if, next to the “do not bin” symbol, there was a permanent, simple website helping anybody anywhere learn where to recycle end-of-life electronics and electricals.

Imagine if, when you arrived at the recycling centre and registered your gadget or appliance, you would get that same information detailing how you prevented environmental damage by recycling. Imagine if there was a hashtag, and you could share your experience and make e-waste recycling the new normal.

If Europe wants more people to recycle, we need to get beyond the disingenuous guilt-trip photo essays about e-waste export, and we need to move beyond a bureaucratic impulse to hide the mechanics of the system. We need to stop framing the e-waste issue in alienating terms of “enforcement” and start making citizen-centric policies and services.

While we need to promote transparency, clear information and ease of access at a systemic level, we should simultaneously recognise the role of communities in promoting resource efficiency – in fact, in most countries recycling was started by communities long before big companies came in.

Put citizens in the centre, and the rest will follow.

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