A new study suggests that nearly half of all discarded waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) in Europe is not properly collected and recycled.
The figures include data for WEEE that are difficult for EU Member States to gather or estimate and, therefore, have not been reported to the European Commission under WEEE Directive obligations.
While public data on WEEE are not always available, there are good data for WEEE that is officially collected and recycled and, thus, also documented by Member States when they report on their progress towards WEEE Directive targets. The Directive requires Member States to collect 85% of all WEEE generated.
However, little is known about the flow of unreported WEEE through society – whether it gets recycled, dumped or exported, for example. Much WEEE goes under the radar because consumers often dispose of it in household waste or it becomes mixed up in mixed-metal waste streams where it gets recycled, but not under compliant conditions for WEEE.
Furthermore, large amounts of WEEE are scavenged (stolen for parts) before they can be formally collected, or exported abroad – both legally and illegally, or simply hoarded by consumers in their homes.
Policymakers, producer compliance schemes and recyclers all need reliable figures to manage this waste stream effectively. WEEE collection and recycling targets based only on reported e-waste flows neglect the huge potential to recover valuable materials, such as cobalt, gold and copper, in unreported flows.
This EU-funded study1 produced more comprehensive data on discarded WEEE in Europe (excluding hoarded WEEE). It calculated figures for all WEEE produced in 2018 in 30 countries: all current EU Member States, Norway, Switzerland and the UK.
The researchers’ estimates of all WEEE and its flows, including unreported WEEE, were based on: the total number of items on the market, estimates of their lifespan, plus figures from a range of studies, publications and databases.
Their results suggest that a total of approximately 9.7 million metric tonnes (Mt) of WEEE, both reported and unreported, was discarded by the 30 countries in 2018. Just over half (51%) – 5 Mt – was reported by Member States.
Of the unreported WEEE, the study estimated that 1.12 Mt (12%) was recycled under non-compliant conditions, as part of mixed-metal scrap. A further 0.64 Mt (7%) was scavenged for valuable components, 0.6 Mt (6%) was disposed of in household waste and 0.29 Mt (3%) was legally exported. The remaining 2.09 Mt (21%) is unaccounted for and may be illegally exported.
The researchers acknowledge that their data still contain uncertainties. However, they provide a better baseline for e-waste managers and policymakers to work with.
WEEE quantities are growing in Europe and will continue to do so in the near future. In 2019, 12 Mt of WEEE was generated in the EU – corresponding to 16.2 kg per person, compared with 11.6 Mt (15.6 kg/person) in 2014. Against this backdrop, the researchers offer policy recommendations for how to improve WEEE management.
First, consumers could be given more incentives to recycle their old products. For example, the researchers say that consumers could receive money off their next purchase by returning an old product to a shop. To encourage more re-use and repair of products, product sustainability information could be used to help consumers adopt a ‘sustainable mindset’, change their buying behaviour and boost manufacturers’ adoption of circular economy principles and practices – designing products that are easier to recycle, for example.
Legal frameworks could be strengthened to prevent illegal exports and, finally, investment is needed in recycling technologies2. Critically, the researchers suggest that strong baseline data are needed to design and evaluate effective measures for WEEE management.
Habib, H., Wagner, M., Baldé, CP., Herreras Martínez, L., Huisman, J. and Dewulf, J. (2022) What gets measured gets managed – does it? Uncovering the waste electrical and electronic equipment flows in the European Union. Resources, Conservation and Recycling 181–106222.
To cite this article/service:
“Science for Environment Policy”: European Commission DG Environment News Alert Service, edited by the Science Communication Unit, The University of the West of England, Bristol.
Notes on content:
The contents and views included in Science for Environment Policy are based on independent, peer-reviewed research and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Commission. Please note that this article is a summary of only one study. Other studies may come to other conclusions.
7 December 2022
Directorate-General for Environment