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Recycling electrical, electronic waste

Youths dismantling reusable parts from computer waste on a pavement of Calcutta, India. Photo: AFP

Youths dismantling reusable parts from computer waste on a pavement of Calcutta, India. Photo: AFP

A revised waste directive is about to be transposed into local law. The main objective is to reduce the amount of waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) that piles up in landfills. Safe recovery and disposal is the ultimate aim.

Malta must achieve a 65 per cent collection rate by August 2021 at the latest, or face penalties
- Anne Zammit

Among other provisions, the legislation introduces a new requirement aimed at preventing European companies from dumping potentially hazardous goods in non-EU countries.

The new regulations will oblige people to recycle more waste electrical and electronic equipment and require retailers of a certain size to make this possible.

Retail shops with a very large sales area must offer a service to collect from consumers small electrical or electronic waste not larger than 25cm without obliging consumers to buy any new equipment. However most shops in Malta are below the size threshold so an alternative infrastructure for collection may be needed.

On a European level, far too much electronic waste still goes to landfills or exported abroad where it is processed in hazardous conditions. Today only about one-third of electronic waste is recycled, and half of that is exported.

Many small electronic waste items such as light bulbs, mobile phones and electronic toothbrushes are thrown away with other rubbish even though they may contain harmful or valuable substances.

A spokesperson for Vodafone Malta, which runs a collection scheme, confirms that 400 kilos of returned mobile phones have been exported to date this year to be recycled in full compliance with European legislation. The phones are reused by returning them to a condition fit for their original purpose.

Some types of electrical and electronic waste may contain hazardous but precious scarce materials. Up to 60 elements may be found in complex electronics. Rapidly changing technology and planned obsolescence have added to a fast-growing surplus of electronic waste. More than 100 million phones are disposed of in Europe each year.

Gold, silver and rare earth metals contained in discarded products or shipped abroad could be recycled in Europe to cut dependence on imports. A ton of mobile phones will deliver up to 300 grams of gold, whereas the concentration of mined gold is only three grams of gold per ton of ore. Worldwide, a very small proportion – two per cent at most – of mobile phones are recycled.

Apart from computers, TV sets, fridges, freezers, and so forth, the directive applies to a wide array of everyday appliances such as hairdryers, vacuum cleaners, pocket calculators, radios, video cameras, amplifiers, sewing machines, smoke detectors, drills, automatic dispensing machines and many more.

Collection of WEEE is set to increase dramatically under the new directive. An ambitious new target of 85 per cent will put the recycling figure at 20kg per person by 2020.

From 2016 onwards most European member states must collect an amount of WEEE equal to nearly half of all electrical and electronic sold in the respective country. Malta and Eastern European countries have different options under a derogation given to due to their lack of infrastructure and/or low level of consumption. However Malta must achieve a 65 per cent collection rate by August 2021 at the latest, or face penalties.

The recast directive has been extended to eventually cover photovoltaic panels, equipment containing ozone-depleting substances and fluorescent lamps which contain mercury. These have to be collected separately and treated, although some exemptions do still exist.

Illegal shipments of WEEE disguised as legal shipments of used equipment, in order to circumvent Europe’s waste treatment rules, are still a serious problem. Last year an environmental investigation agency published a report revealing that large numbers of broken television sets deposited at one of the UK’s leading waste and recycling companies, Environment Waste Controls, had been illegally dumped in Nigeria by a third party company.

Around the same time, a BBC television documentary reported on a dump in Ghana where children sift through mountains of equipment searching for scraps of copper and aluminium to sell. Cathode ray tubes from old televisions can make such dumps a very dangerous environment. It is hoped the new directive will help fight illegal export of waste more effectively. Exporters will be made responsible to prove that goods are actually being shipped abroad for repair or reuse.

It remains up to the EU’s individual member states to put strong penalties in place for illegal e-waste exporters. Information on potential environmental and health effects of hazardous substances in this type of waste must be made available. Consumers must also be informed about return and collection systems and the meaning of the crossed-out wheelie bin symbol that identifies the need for separate collection.

As part of the implementation process, a discussion with stakeholders at a Meusac consultation is to be held tomorrow on how the Government is to approach the directive.

The consultation ends on December 14. Mid-2013 is the deadline for EU countries to adopt the WEEE directive into national law.

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