• How Much E-Waste Does the UK Export?

Environmental Laboratory

How Much E-Waste Does the UK Export?

Mar 28 2019

A covert investigation by the environmental watchdog the Basel Action Network (BAN) has revealed that the UK is the chief offender in Europe when it comes to illegally exporting e-waste to countries outside of the EU. By attaching GPS trackers to a number of different technological items and placing them in recycling centres all over Europe, BAN were able to determine where the e-waste ended up.

The revelation comes just months after the UK was found to be one of the biggest net producers of e-waste per capita in the world. Trailing only Norway, Switzerland, Denmark and Iceland, the UK was responsible for generating 51.8lbs per person in 2014 (the year in which the most recent statistics are available) and the increasing popularity of electronic gadgetry in the interim only suggests that figure is likely to have risen.

The environmental pros and cons of technology

On the one hand, the advances in our technological capabilities and accessories can do wonders for Mother Earth. The role of digitalisation in improving efficiency, bolstering safety and helping the environment should not be underestimated, especially in the industrial and agricultural sectors.

On the other hand, the proliferation of electronic gadgets in our daily lives and the constant churn of new models means that many old smartphones, laptops and other items are being disposed of before their lifespan is spent. While the UK does manage to recycle 45% of its e-waste (in comparison to 40% globally), a substantial amount still ends up in landfill.

This is not only a colossal waste of precious resources like gold, copper and aluminium, but also poses a threat to human health. That’s because the toxic metals contained within electronic equipment can leach into the atmosphere, causing serious damage to the heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, brain and nervous system of those exposed to them for a prolonged period.

The fate of e-waste

Due to its hazardous effects on human health, the exportation of e-waste to countries that are not in either the EU or the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is prohibited under EU law. In order to determine whether European countries were flouting those rules, BAN attached GPS trackers to computers, printers and LCD monitors and monitored where they went.

With five computers and LCD monitors ending up in Nigeria, Pakistan and Tanzania, the UK was top of the list when it came to suspected illegal exportation of e-waste. Other offenders included Denmark, Germany, Ireland, Italy and Spain and by cross-referencing the findings of their investigation against independent figures on total e-waste generation in Europe, the authors estimated that 352,474 metric tonnes of the stuff were being illegally transported to impoverished countries each year.

“We have discovered a very significant stream of illegal shipments of hazardous consumer electronic scrap to vulnerable populations,” explained Jim Puckett, director of BAN. “This flies in the face of EU claims to make continuous efforts to implement a circular economy which can only responsibly exist by eliminating leakage from the system.”

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