What’s WEEE and why is it bad?

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makeITfare, SwedWatch, the Church of Sweden and the Fair Trade Centre have produced a fairly substantive report on electronic tra$h flows from the European Union to developing countires. Speaking the language of the European Commission, the report uses the amusing term “Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment” (WEEE), but that’s where the fun stuff ends.

Quick facts: About 50 million tonnes of WEEE is produced annualy, and in the EU as a whole, only about a third is collected for recycling. Much of this is toxic and hazardous to handle, and even though some of the worst chemicals are no longer used in the EU, we can expect that most of the EU-WEEE predates July 2006, which is when regulations where tightened. As an example, an avarege cellphone contains about 200 chemical compounds.

According to the report, the flow of elctric trash from the EU to countries such as Pakistan, Ghana, China and the Philippines comes in many shapes. Three main routes can however be identified. First, there the tra$h that we are used to, garbage as an international commodity, on a market where the price of a laptop can be about US$ 10. Secondly, there’s the black market tra$h, which essentially is the same thing, only more illegal. Thirdly, there’s the export of used but fully functional computer, fridges, cell phones etc. from the global North to the global South.

When it comes to legal and illegal tra$h, the report points at the problem not really being whether what’s sold generates proper VAT, the problem is that regardless of who sells and buys, there are not adequate systems available when the tra$h reaches its final destination – it is taken care of by children and people living in poverty. The result is spelled in raised levels of led in their blood, and a long list of other things. For some tra$h tycoons, the ends justify the means. “Recycling” a computer costs about 15% in India, compared to West Europe.

For the donated computers and white goods, the problem will in the end be the same: Nowhere to recycle once the family fridge goes WEEE. I.e., it might feel all great giving your used laptop to an orphanage in Sub-Saharan Africa instead of sending it back to recycling, but trashly speaking, you might actually make things worse. Also worth to mention is that much of the used things that are supposed to be donated, actually end up as tra$h (and in some circumstances, its the other way round).

One of the more interesting, and at the same time deeply disturbing phenomena brought forward by the report are the so-called “trash tourists” that roam scrap yards and shady business offices in the EU. Trash tourists are essentially people who migrate in search of tra$h, more or less voluntarily. Makes me think of a Swedish investigative journalist TV-programme, exposing a businessman who in effect employed men from West Africa, without paying them, to sort out recycled car tires. He claimed they were guests, visiting to scout the market. They lived in barracks on the (incidentally toxic) grounds.

To conclude, the report notes with sadness that the Basel Convention, in place to prevent all this since 1989, is still terribly dysfunctional.

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One Response to “What’s WEEE and why is it bad?”

  1. Leila Darabi Says:

    Amazing summary, Vic. Thanks for the breakdown. Your closing example underscores the fact that tra$h flows both ways, exacerbating immigration issues in Northern countries, environmental issues in Southern countries and labor issues in both.

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