Time WEEE cracked down on illegal exports

BBC's Panorama Track my Trash programme screened last night on illegal exports of e-waste was shocking to watch, even for a seasoned waste commentator like me.

The sight of kids in African scrap yards stripping down broken television sets and computers with their bare hands searching for precious metals was pretty shameful. Their skin was scarred and burnt from the toxicity of the materials they were handling. 

Our quest to own the latest gadgets and technology means that waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) is now the fastest growing waste stream in the UK. We can't consume enough of it, and we dispose of it just as swiftly.

Putting consumerist arguments aside, this shouldn't pose too much of a problem as long as we reuse and recycle our e-waste in a responsible manner. We don't really have an excuse not to – that's what the WEEE Directive is for. 

But it is estimated that 100,000 tonnes of this stuff ‘leaks' out of the UK each year. It just … disappears. Except not into thin air. Rather, it gets smuggled into cargo containers and shipped out to places like Ghana which has now earned the unenviable title of the world's largest digital dumping ground.

The Environment Agency (EA) reckons that one in eight cargo containers may be carrying illegal e-waste for export. The scale of the problem is such that to police it requires massive resources – at a time when enforcement agencies like the EA have had their funding significantly cut.

The waste industry is unfortunately polluted with a lot of cowboy outfits who see rubbish as making a quick buck, and they will undercut reputable firms to achieve this. It saddens me that they have no scruples and that law-abiding disposal specialists inevitably suffer.

One socially responsible company admitted on the programme that its recycling plant was running at less than 40% capacity because of the amount of e-waste that goes missing out of the disposal supply chain. 

It is tragic state of affairs when the UK has the means to deal with this waste stream in a sustainable manner, yet is hindered from doing so. It's simplistic to say the answer lies solely in more effective enforcement. Each and every one of us is a waste producer – we also have a part to play. 

Unless we take an active role in insisting where our waste ends up, and demand greater traceability from retailers, councils, waste carriers, disposal firms and reprocessors, this sorry tale will just carry on.

maxine perella

Topics: edie
Tags: | Reuse | supply chain | technology | traceability | WEEE
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