The EU-funded project, known as Countering WEEE Illegal Trade (CWIT), spent two years investigating the waste electronics market.

It found that just 35% of 9.5 million tonnes of used-but-still-functioning waste electronics ended up in official collection and recycling systems.

The other discarded electronics – 6.2 million tonnes in all – was either exported, recycled under non-compliant conditions or simply thrown in waste bins.

According to WEEE Forum secretary-general Pascal Leroy: “Electronic and electrical equipment represents the fastest-growing flow of the world’s waste streams. 

“The weight of Europe’s mismanaged e-waste alone equals that of a 10-meter high brick wall stretching from Oslo to the toe of Italy.  Valuable metals and components, including critical raw materials, need to be safely captured and recycled to the fullest possible extent.”

The report also discovered ‘widespread theft’ of valuable components such as circuit boards and precious metals from waste electronics, resulting in an annual estimated loss between €800m and €1.7bn.

Norbert Zonneveld, the executive secretary of the European Electronics Recyclers Association, commented: “Illegal and non-compliant activities are disruptive for the proper functioning of the market and cause huge economic losses for responsible actors. It gnaws at the credibility of legal execution while the environment is suffering.”


A United Nations University (UNU) study last year found that toxic materials in the world’s annual 41.8 million tonnes of discarded electronics could lead to impaired mental development, cancer and damage to livers and kidneys.

The UNU also estimated the waste contains 16,500 kilotons of iron, 1,900 kilotons of copper, and 300 tonnes of gold, as well as significant amounts of silver, aluminium and palladium. Throwing these valuable metals away depletes the planet’s resources whilst damaging the economy.

The report notes that 30% of EU members have not implemented the stringent regulations required by the latest version of the WEEE directive and that typical national penalties for infractions at the national level are not high enough to be a true deterrent.


To help tackle the illegal trade and disposal of e-waste, the report suggests a number of changes, including an EU-wide ban on cash transactions in the scrap metal trade, more consumer education and the creation of two new agencies to foster international collaboration and police the industry.

A recent study from Sheffield University found that efficient recycling of WEEE could be worth €3.7bn to the European economy by 2020.

For more information on this subject, check out edie’s Top 10 facts about e-waste…

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie