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MPs to probe UK’s growing e-waste problem

The parliamentary Environmental Audit Committee has launched an inquiry into electronic waste and the circular economy

The cross-party Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) has opened an inquiry into electronic waste, also known as e-waste, and the circular economy, as the number of connected devices in use in the UK continues to increase dramatically and shows no sign of slowing.

The EAC claimed that out of 44.7 million tonnes of e-waste produced worldwide in 2017, 90% of it was either sent to landfill, incinerated, illegally traded or otherwise treated in a sub-standard way.

The UK produces 24.9kg of e-waste per person, nearly 10kg more than the European Union (EU) average, and while previous governments have implemented EU directives on Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) into British law, the UK is consistently missing its recycling targets.

Concerns over what happens to rubbish generated within the UK have entered the public consciousness in 2019 following multiple reports that thousands of tonnes of waste plastics that people thought they were recycling in good faith have simply been shipped to other countries and, in many cases, illegally dumped.

These dumping grounds include a number of ASEAN countries such as the Philippines and Malaysia, which has announced plans to return 3,000 tonnes of plastics to countries such as Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, the UK and the US, and even Malaysia’s neighbour Singapore.

Besides plastics, e-waste often also contains rare earth elements – rare in the sense of being hard and expensive to mine – such as lithium, tantalum and tungsten – and other chemicals that if dumped in landfill, can easily contaminate local water supplies and food chains and pose a risk to both human health and wider ecosystems.

In some countries, crude recycling and extraction techniques used to recover reusable components within electrical goods pose an additional risk to workers by exposing them to toxins and carcinogens.

The committee cited a recent report produced by environmental groups Ipen and the Basel Action Network, which found that in the Agbogbloshie district of Ghana’s capital, Accra, where as many as 80,000 people work in large-scale e-waste recycling, dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) contained within e-waste from Europe was causing significant impacts.

The report found that one adult eating one egg produced in the area would exceed European Food Safety Authority limits on chlorinated dioxin by more than 200 times.

Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, Mary Creagh MP, said: “Our old fridges, freezers, computers, TVs, kettles and mobile phones are piling up in a ‘tsunami of e-waste’. New phone launches, cheaper goods, and built-in obsolescence have contributed to the growth of electronic waste in recent years.

“The UK produces more e-waste than the EU average. We are missing EU targets and are one of the worst offenders for exporting waste to developing countries, who are ill-equipped to dispose of it in a socially and environmentally responsible way.

“Our attitude to e-waste is unsustainable and the need for radical action is clear. We will be investigating the UK’s e-waste industry and looking at how we can create a circular economy for electronic goods.”

The EAC is inviting written evidence on a number of questions, to be submitted by the close of business on 17 August 2019.

Among other things, the EAC, which includes the Green Party’s only sitting MP, Caroline Lucas, are asking: what are the risks to the environment and human health from e-waste? What steps are being taken to implement a circular economy for electronics within the UK? How can the secondary markets for used goods be improved and supported? And how the government can support the adoption of technology to aid in recovering precious metals and rare earth elements from end-of-life devices?

The EAC would also like input on current WEEE collection targets, whether or not they are achievable and the challenges processors face in meeting them, the issue of fraud in the e-waste system, the illegal exporting of e-waste to developing countries, and public awareness of the issue.

The committee will ultimately help inform future revisions to the UK’s 2013 WEEE legislation, which the government has committed to undertake by the end of 2020. Westminster has also committed £8m in funding to explore research into changing user behaviour, and expanding local projects that increase reuse and recycling rates.

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