EU Policies on Electric and Electronic Waste

Electrical and electronic waste is waste from a huge spectrum of products. They include small and large household appliances, IT and telecommunications equipment, lighting equipment, and consumer goods such as radios, TV sets, video cameras and hi-fi systems. This equipment is made up of many different materials and components, some of which are hazardous. This is why electrical and electronic waste can cause major environmental problems during the waste management phase, in particular landfilling and incineration, if it is not properly treated.

In fact, each electrical and electronic piece of equipment consists of a combination of several basic building blocks, such as circuit boards/assemblies, cables, cords and wires, plastics containing flame retardants, mercury switches, display equipment such as cathode ray tubes and crystal liquid displays, accumulators and batteries, light generating devices, capacitors, etc.

Environmentally problematic substances in these components include certain heavy metals (mercury, lead, cadmium and chromium) and halogenated substances (CFCs, PCBs, PVCs and brominated flame retardants). Many of these substances can be toxic and may pose risks to human health when released. For instance, lead can damage the nervous system and can adversely affect the cardiovascular system and the kidneys. Cadmium also affects the functioning of kidneys and can cause brain damage.

Up to now more than 90% of electrical and electronic waste is landfilled, incinerated or recovered without any pre-treatment, which means that the pollutants could be released into the environment and contaminate air, water and soil.

Key data on electrical and electronic waste (WEEE) from 1998 showed a generation of 14 kg per inhabitant and year - in total, around 6 million tonnes per year (4% of the municipal waste stream). WEEE was estimated to be growing at 3-5% per year, which makes it the fastest growing waste stream, growing three times faster than the average waste stream. Today, citizens are likely to generate between 17 and 20 kg per head and year.

The EU has adopted two Directives that tackle the problems posed by electrical and electronic waste.

The Directive on waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE Directive) aims to prevent the generation of electrical and electronic waste and to promote reuse, recycling and other forms of recovery in order to reduce the quantity of such waste to be eliminated through landfilling or incineration. It therefore requires the collection of WEEE, recovery and reuse/recycling. Where appropriate, priority should be given to reuse of the whole appliance .

The Directive on the restriction of the use of certain hazardous substances in electrical and electronic equipment (RoHS Directive) seeks to substitute lead, mercury, cadmium, hexavalent chromium, polybrominated biphenyls (PBB) and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE) in electrical and electronic equipment, where alternatives are available, in order to facilitate sound recovery and prevent problems during the waste management phase. (There is other EU legislation dealing with CFCs, PCBs and PVCs.)

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