Europeans Blissfully Unaware of Electrical-Electronic Goods Recycling

Only 25% of medium-sized household electrical goods and 40% of large appliances in Europe are recovered for recycling purposes. This information appears in a report of a study undertaken by the United Nations University (UNU) for the European Commission, with the collaboration of GAIKER-IK4 Technological Centre.

With smaller household appliances (hairdryers, MP3 players, etc.), the figures are worse. Although there are exceptions, the level of recycling is almost 0%.

The European Directive on Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) – currently under revision – sets out an annual objective of waste collection of 4kg per person. However, the research shows that there are large gaps between Member States as regards current waste collection rates. In the economically stronger countries these rates are easily achieved, but they are a challenge for the new Members.

The current low rates of waste collection are partly a result of the lack of awareness amongst consumers and is a cause for concern. This is particularly so considering that the study predicts that, in the Europe of the Twenty-Seven, electronic waste will grow from between 2.5% and 2.7% a year to a figure of more than 12 million tons in 2020.

The report proposes possible long-term targets for waste collection of 60% for these smaller appliances and for medium-sized audio goods, microwave ovens and televisions. The target for waste collection for large electrical appliances such as fridges and washing machines is 75%. If these aims were met, we would go from the 2.2 million tons of electronic waste currently collected to 5.3 million in 2011.

Environmental benefits
Recovering and recycling different types of electronic waste benefits the environment in terms of reducing contamination, conservation of natural resources, reducing energy consumption and avoiding emissions that cause global warming and destruction of the ozone layer. For example, one of the prime environmental priorities is controlling chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) from disused fridges and freezers. Increasing the waste collection rate from 27% achieved in 2005 to the 75% proposed for 2011 would mean a significant reduction in the presence of the chemical compounds responsible for damaging the ozone layer. Also, given that the CFCs are gases with a high greenhouse effect, the emission to the atmosphere of the equivalent of 34 million tons of CO2 is avoided.

Improving electronic waste recovery rates is also the key to preventing contamination. It is estimated, for example, that 660 million low energy-consumption lamps sold in 2006 in the EU-27 contain about 4.3 tons of mercury and that flat LCD screens have 2.8 tons more. This is why it is necessary for consumers to contribute in controlling these toxic risks, handing in disused appliances to certified recycling centres in order to be treated appropriately.

The Directive on WEEEs
Having been undertaken between September 2006 and August 2007, the project was part of a series of studies commissioned by the European Commission to serve as the scientific- technical basis for the revision of the Directive on WEEEs. The main aims of the study were:

  • To evaluate the degree of application of the Directive for the Member States, special attention being paid to the environmental, economic and social aspects of the Directive on WEEEs.
  • To provide legislative and non-legislative options to improve environmental efficacy, cost efficiency and the simplification of the Directive on WEEEs.

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