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EIA: Government must do more to stop illegal e-waste exports

Electronic devices should be tested at civic amenity sites

The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) is calling for the government to conduct a full review of the firms involved in the disposal of the UK's e-waste.

The EIA's recommendation comes after an investigation, which was the subject of an episode of the BBC's Panorama programme, that saw tracking devices placed within broken TVs, in a bid to identify where they ended up. The investigation revealed the devices, which had been dumped at two civic amenity sites in Surrey and subsequently collected by a third-party, had not been tested and confirmed to be in working order before leaving the UK, despite this being illegal under the Waste Electrical and Electronic (WEEE) Resources Regulations Act, 2006.

It is thought that the UK's e-waste amounts to one million tonnes a year, and this is growing at a rate of five percent annually. Under the WEEE regulations, working old electronic devices can be exported abroad. However, there is a profitable but illegal trade in also selling on broken devices for components and scrap metal. In fact, it is estimated that one in every eight containers of exported e-waste actually contains broken devices.

The EIA believes the government should check any third-party that has an existing contract with a local authority to collect e-waste actually has the infrastructure to carry out the e-waste recycling. Furthermore, it said the government should take over the right to award contracts to recycling firms, a process currently handled by the local authorities themselves.

The EIA also proposes that any unwanted electrical equipment left at civic amenity sites should be tested before leaving the site, while any third-party accused of illegally exporting e-waste should be barred from recycling activities until their case has been resolved. Those proven to have illegally exported e-waste should lose their contract if prosecuted.

"Stopping illegal exports of e-waste from developed countries is not just about reducing the environmental and human health impacts of our waste but has far-reaching and potentially very costly security implications. Current enforcement efforts against illegal e-waste exports simply do not reflect the real impacts of this crime," the EIA said in the report.

Fin Walravens, a senior campaigner at the EIA, said the organisation's work clearly demonstrates the UK's failure to take its environmental responsibility seriously.

"Our e-waste isn't a new problem and it isn't going away. It's time for the government and enforcement agencies to give this issue the resources and attention it warrants."

Anja French, director of marketing and communications at Computer Aid International, an organisation that legimately recycles old PCs, said both the EIA's report and Panorama programme highlighted the devastating impact of UK generated e-waste on communities in developing countries.

"This is an issue which Computer Aid has campaigned about for many years and we are pleased that further awareness of the issue has been raised," she said.

"Unwanted computers are an integral part of the UK's e-waste problem, however the majority of PCs sent for recycling have at least three to four years' further life in them. There is an urgent need for working computers and laptops in hospitals, charities and schools in developing countries and sending tested and refurbished computers to countries such as Ethiopia or Zambia can significantly reduce poverty."

Computer Aid revealed it uses SWEEEP, the recycling company highlighted by Panaroma as an example of good practice, to recycle any equipment donated that doesn't meet minimum specifications or is faulty. SWEEEP guarantees that 0% of the equipment ends up in landfill.


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