Important findings from an EU-funded project’s investigation into how electrical and electronic equipment waste – or e-waste – is dealt with could help policymakers and law enforcement agencies put a stop to illegal trading and increase recycling rates. Several key recommendations are already being implemented.

Despite a decade of EU legislation, only 35 % of all e-waste was collected and recycled in 2012 in compliance with European regulations. This means that valuable waste that could be re-used here in Europe continues to be mismanaged. Furthermore, how can we know for sure that the electric and electronic appliances we discard are not being illegally exported to Africa or Asia, or that organised crime is not involved?

“The key objective of the CWIT project was to get more insights into the economics of WEEE trade on one side, and how legislation and enforcement function together in European supply chains on the other,” explains Ioana Botezatu from Interpol, which coordinated this EU-funded project. “We showed that we need more than EU action plans or environmental legislation alone. Without cooperation from departments that deal with taxation, justice, police and customs, the fight against illegal trade is unlikely to be effective.”

Tons of mismanaged waste

Through an extensive market assessment, an analysis of legal frameworks and an examination of criminal investigations, the CWIT project made some discoveries that will be important for policymaking and law enforcement.

Researchers found that of the 65 % (6.15 million tonnes) of e-waste not recycled in 2012, around 3.15 million tonnes was either recycled under non-compliant conditions in Europe; scavenged for valuable parts (0.75 million tonnes); thrown into waste bins (0.75 million tonnes); or exported (1.5 million tonnes).

“This means that a total of 4.65 million tonnes is wrongfully mismanaged or illegally traded within Europe itself,” says Jaco Huisman from United Nations University, the scientific coordinator of the project. “The widespread scavenging of both products and components and the theft of valuable components such as circuit boards and precious metals from e-waste, means that there is a serious economic loss of materials and resources directed to compliant e-waste processors in Europe.”

The results also contradict the general perception that anything not collected and reported as recycled in Europe is destined for illegal waste exports towards Africa. “We found that the predominant driver behind export was reuse and refurbishing, and not waste dumping as such,” says Huisman. “The lack of transparency and treatment quality of substantial volumes within Europe is a much bigger environmental, health and economic concern.”

Case analyses of illegal activities helped to identify vulnerabilities that exist throughout the entire WEEE supply chain. Offences included violations of WEEE trade regulations, theft, lack of required permits and false load declarations. The weakest links were often found to be in prosecution and sentencing.

“A recommendation roadmap with short, medium, and long-term recommendations has been developed, with the aim of reducing illegal trade through specific actions,” says Botezatu. “These actions include better consumer education; more upstream inspections; an Operational Intelligence Management System (OIMS) to support intelligence-led enforcement; and the dedicated training of judges and prosecutors.”

Measures on e-waste needed

Since the end of the project, CWIT’s recommendations have been transformed into implementable measures, says Pascal Leroy, secretary general of the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Forum, an industry association and a CWIT partner.

“Several legislative suggestions have already been taken on board by member states, including a ban on cash transactions in the scrap metal trade and a reporting model that includes mandatory treatment and reporting of WEEE in accordance with approved standards,” he says.

Progress has also been made in the criminal justice system, which Botezatu believes is essential to putting in place a sustainable EU-wide policy. The DOTCOM Waste project, which has sought to develop dedicated training materials for law enforcement agencies, is a direct follow-up on CWIT.

Project partners have been involved in other follow-up research projects that have expanded the scope of this project to other types of waste.

“We hope that this project has opened policymakers’ eyes and showcased how fact-based research, coordination and support actions are instrumental in implementing waste legislation,” Botezatu concludes.

More Information

CWIT – Countering WEEE Illegal Trade Factsheet

Download Countering WEEE Illegal Trade – Summary Report 

CWIT  – Results in Brief

Participant Ireland Compliance and Risks