Criminals join the e-waste cycle

An EU directive on recycling was meant to clear up the problem of electronic waste – but it is being flagrantly abused in the United Kingdom. Pete Warren reports.

Organised crime has moved into the recycling industry — a development that has become clear over the past few months after a series of raids to enforce the European Union’s Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive.

In a raid at the start of June, police and officials from the United Kingdom’s Environment Agency (EA) targeted two east London locations — a farm at Upminster and an industrial site at Rainham — and forced open around 500 containers full of old computers, monitors, refrigerators and assorted electrical waste destined for illegal export to Africa, where it would be stripped down for raw materials.

“Our investigations have found that the majority of this equipment is beyond repair and is being stripped down under appalling conditions in Africa,” said the Environment Agency’s national enforcement service project manager, Chris Smith. “But the law is clear — electrical waste must be recycled in the UK, not sent to developing countries in Africa where unsafe dismantling puts human health and the environment at risk.

“The Environment Agency has created a national team to stamp out this illegal trade and strong intelligence work has resulted in [the] operation — the most significant action to date in investigating suspected electrical waste being shipped to Africa.”

During the raid, in which 50 people were questioned, other more tell-tale signs of organised crime came to light from the containers: stolen motorbikes, a cherry-picker crane, a dumper truck, a suspected illegal immigrant, a steamroller, stolen import documentation and £80,000 [more than US$130,000] worth of vodka and cigarettes.

Organised crime’s involvement in the scrap-metal business is the stuff of Hollywood legend, and its interest in computers has been developing hand in hand with the industry. Computer chips have long been a target for crime gangs, who have even gone so far as breaking into office blocks and ripping chips out of systems; but the systematic attempts to flout the WEEE directive are cause for real environmental concern.

The prize is the gold, copper, steel and other metals that can be reclaimed from the electrical waste.

“It’s a really ugly picture of what’s happening on a massive scale,” said Ted Smith, a noted American environmental activist who has been giving evidence to the United States Senate on the issue. “Around 50 to 80% of all of the material collected in the US is making its way abroad and significant amounts from the UK and Europe.”

The impact of the trade on the developing world in terms of the environment and human health is appalling. In Africa, China and India, young children are used to recover tiny amounts of metal.

“Chips are removed from circuit boards over open fires and give off lead fumes in the process,” said Smith. “Children are digging out carbon black from toner cartridges. Other components are put into acid baths in sweat shops. In lots of parts of the world, the reclamation takes place by the side of ditches and rivers and poisonous chemicals leach into the environment. In China, children are already being found with high levels of chemicals in their blood.”

The illegal trade of waste abroad is on the increase. Flagrant abuse of the WEEE directive in the United Kingdom has meant that rather than waste being recycled in the country, broken electrical equipment is dumped in containers and labelled as functional. To camouflage the broken material, working objects are then placed on the top of the unusable equipment to put off officials.

“This is not a situation where someone does not understand the rules — it is deliberate,” said Adrian Harding, the EA’s policy adviser for producer responsibility.

A cursory examination of the recycling industry reveals how deliberate the scams are. When the United Kingdom decided to belatedly enforce the directive two years ago (it became law in 2003), 500 companies joined what they thought was a valuable market, some not realising that many of the more lucrative scrap items, such as cookers, were already being removed by local government authorities and others.

Before the rules were implemented, it was estimated that households generated around 900,000 tonnes of relevant waste a year, and businesses 750,000 tonnes.

“Two years into the WEEE directive, the actual amount of WEEE being recorded is around a third of what was projected,” said Euan Jackson, managing director of recycling for the waste company Wincanton.

“WEEE is still being sent via unauthorised routes, such as being exported for ‘reuse’, or being mixed in with general scrap to generate a revenue stream for organisations with vested interests.”

Much waste is also not making it to the right places. “The statistics have proved the prevalent abuse of regulations to allow unscrupulous businesses and authorities to sweep WEEE under the carpet to the detriment of the environment,” said Jon Godfrey, director of Sims Recycling Solutions, which runs Europe’s largest recycling facility for such material.

With the collapse in metal prices after the recession began, many companies have gone into administration and others are feeling the financial pressure. Some of the larger players have invested heavily in equipment and have engaged in research and development to be able to safely reclaim virtually all of the materials from electronic items. They claim that the development of an efficient industry is now being prevented by criminals — and the compliance schemes the UK government has set up.

In most other European countries, there are around three schemes, while in the UK there are 40 — many of which are meant to buy waste and recycle it on behalf of particular manufacturing sectors, such as the mobile phone industry.

The problem, according to the bigger players, is that those groups have a vested interest in paying the cheapest price for that process and there is no cost to recycle equipment that has been marked as working and reusable. Enter the shadier side of the scrap-metal business.

“One of the problems with this is business at large,” says Harding. “It would be very useful if businesses ensured that their electrical waste was going to the right place.” And it is not just business; the general public is also at fault. Only 20% of our mobile phones, 14% of our televisions, 10% of our computers and 9% of our toasters and vacuum cleaners make it to the dump.

While other household items such as electric toothbrushes, battery-operated watches, electronic toys and hedge clippers are rarely recycled, most items end up being thrown out with the household rubbish, where it leaches into the environment.


Copyright Guardian News and Media Limited, 2009
Homepage image by Greenpeace / Natalie Behring-Chisholm