Committee on Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI)
Tech Trash: With less than 40% of electronics waste being recycled, the EU is the world's second largest producer of electronics waste per capita, contributing to global pollution and climate change. Keeping in mind the importance of an environmentally friendly electronics industry for the EU’s goal of climate neutrality, what steps can the EU take to promote sustainable production and consumption of electronics?
Key terms: e-waste, right to repair, planned obsolescence, waste mismanagement
by Tomas Winegar (FI)
1.Background and relevance
Electronic devices are a vital part of modern European life, but many of them end up in European and foreign landfills as e-waste when they inevitably break or require replacement. E-waste is the fastest-growing sector of waste in the European Union, being responsible for a total of 2337 million tonnes of un-recycled waste in 2018.
The largest amount of electronics waste is generated from home appliances, followed by information and communications technology (ICT) and telecommunication devices such as mobile phones and internet routers. Importantly, many electronics devices that end up in landfills still have the potential to be fully or partly reused. For example, they often are still in working condition or contain several functional parts, but have other damage or lack features present in newer ones, thus making owners more likely to replace them.
E-waste is a major contributor to pollution and climate change. It is often disposed of by burning, which can release harmful compounds such as heavy metals and brominated dioxins. E-waste may cause additional environmental damage if toxic heavy metals, such as lithium and mercury, leak into soils and contaminate groundwater. The presence of heavy metals in the soil may then be absorbed by plants and animals, causing severe harm or even death.
With Europeans being evermore conscious of their environmental footprint, the question of how to reduce the amount, reuse, repair and recycle electronics is at the forefront of e-waste discussions. This topic becomes particularly relevant to the European youth due to their great environmental awareness and activism for sustainability and the planet. What role should the EU take in supporting the sustainable production and consumption of electronics, minimising pollution from e-waste while promoting advances in the electronics sector?
The European Commission co-legislates with the European Parliament to pass legislation that protects consumers and the environment whilst enabling businesses to operate profitably in the EU and promoting sustainable development in ICT. The areas of environmental protection as well as research and technological development are shared competences, meaning that both the EU and Member States propose legislation, with EU laws taking priority.
The Directorate-General for the Environment (DG ENV) develops and implements policies related to the environment, drafted by the European Commission. It’s goal is to ensure policies include a high level of environmental protection, preserving Europe’s environments.
The Directorate-General Content and Technology (CONNECT) is responsible for issues regarding the European digital single market. It develops policies relating to the circular economy action plan and sustainable products, working to make legislation which supports sustainable manufacturing, consumption and reuse.
Electronics manufacturers aim to maximise their profits by either furthering their customer reach or, more frequently, convincing existing customers to replace or upgrade their devices by introducing new features and making products difficult to repair.
Consumers need to decide what products to purchase and for how long to use them. Key motivators in these decisions are often cost and features over environmental impact. When consumers upgrade their electronics devices, they often find it difficult and confusing to recycle their older products, instead discarding them and contributing to e-waste.
Repair businesses profit from repairing broken devices completely or partly, which generates significantly less e-waste than replacing the entire device. This practice places them in conflict with electronics manufacturers, who often intentionally limit and hinder access to replacement parts and schematics.
UN environment programme is a programme of the UN which creates global environmental agenda, and encourages the implementation of environmentally friendly practises. It works together with UN Member States in assessing environmental issues and providing guidance on how to tackle them.
Environmental non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as European Environmental Bureau work to spread awareness and actively campaign for the conservation of the environment including limiting the impact of e-waste.
Click here to view this Stakeholder Map on Miro.
3.Challenges and measures in place
The fastest-growing sector of waste
Reports suggest that consumers are keeping their electronic devices for a shorter time than ever before, with the average lifespan of smartphones expected to decrease to less than three years by 2025. In part, this development owes itself to consumers wanting to experience new features by regularly updating their otherwise functional devices. More significantly, replacement often occurs when people opt to buy new devices instead of repairing damages to their existing ones, being reportedly discouraged by the increased cost of repairs.
On the other hand, some analysts argue that this difficulty is purposefully created by manufacturers to retain control of their devices after consumers buy them as well as direct consumers to buy new devices when the repairs are inevitably more expensive. Repair of devices is also made more difficult for third parties to attempt as access to many replacement parts is limited and costly.
Another issue that contributes to the growing amount of e-waste is that of planned obsolescence. Several manufacturers have been caught designing products which are meant to fail or be unusable after a certain time period. This combined with the difficulty and cost involved in attempting repairs results in consumers buying new devices and old ones ending up as e-waste.
The European Union has aimed to address the issues of repairability planned obsolescence, by introducing a law in March 2021, which requires electronics manufacturers, selling hair dryers, refrigerators, televisions or washing machines, in the EU to ensure devices are repairable for 10 years after they are sold. The law will force companies selling these products to guarantee access to replacement parts and repairs for the consumer. The law does not, however, cover other areas of electronics which contribute to the issue of e-waste such as ICT and telecommunications equipment.
Second hand electronics markets are still relatively uncommon in Europe and consumers are reluctant to buy second hand devices, with fears of using stolen or flawed goods. This is compounded by the question of whether companies even support these second hand products as they receive no commission from the resale. Access to warranty services can be difficult and slow when dealing with second hand products as many companies want original receipts for the purchase to verify the age of the device. Independent businesses, however, exist in the space and are working to change views on second-hand devices and give new life to used devices.
Importantly, there is still a large problem which looms over the whole electronics industry; profit is tied to the volume of products sold. As customer bases are limited, companies must incentivize their existing customers to upgrade regularly to keep up profits. This inevitably leads to more devices ending up as e-waste when customers get rid of their old devices.
Troubles in collecting and disposing of E-waste
A large challenge in tackling e-waste is the cost of collecting and processing it. Unlike many other forms of waste, such as food and household waste, electronics waste comes in many forms and contains different materials, which have to be treated with different processes in order to be recycled. This means that much of the recycling of e-waste is done by hand making it expensive.
There is also a huge waste mismanagement problem with e-waste, because it contains many valuable materials, but is difficult to recycle properly. The value of some materials in e-waste, such as copper and gold, attracts illegal scavengers who strip away these materials and discard the rest of the materials unsafely and without regulation. An estimated 22% of all e-waste is subject to illegal scavenging, with two thirds of fridges and AC units never reaching legitimate recyclers. This scavenging happens both within and outside the borders of the European Union, with an estimated 400 000 tons of undocumented e-waste being exported from the EU annually.
Interpol and the UN have called for the EU to ban cash transactions in electronics waste deals to stop the criminal scavenging of used electronics. There have also been calls for the EU to financially support e-waste recycling in order for the cheapest options to also be environmentally friendly ones.
The export of e-waste has already been made illegal by the EU under the Basel Convention, however, this enforcement is often difficult and significant amounts of e-waste is exported to be scrapped, under the guise of being repurposed and reused.
The environmental impact of e-waste
Common e-waste contains hazardous materials such as heavy metals and brominated dioxins. Because e-waste is so varied in type and design, disposing of the hazardous materials in it can be very difficult. That is why there have been calls to make standards for how to recycle products mandatory on electronic devices.
The consumption of electronics at such a rapid rate has also meant that the demand for the raw materials in these electronic devices has increased significantly. The mines in which these resources are mined, are harmful for the environment as they use polluting chemicals in the mining process. There have also been reports of many of these mines having inhumane working conditions and exploiting workers.
The EU has aimed to somewhat combat this increase in demand by increasing the collection targets for member states from 40% in 2016 to 65% in 2019, aiming for more of these materials to come from recycled sources. This, however, has been left for member states to implement.
How can the EU ensure that innovation and sustainability go hand in hand for the future of the electronics industry?
How can the EU help its consumers reduce their e-waste output while preserving the benefits of technological progress?
What can the EU do to support safe recycling of e-waste in all Member States?
What can the EU do to alleviate the environmental harm caused by the mismanagement of e-waste?
5.Faces of Sustainability
Landfills in Europe and all around the world are filling up with e-waste. This waste contains precious raw materials that are valuable and necessary for the production of new electronics devices as well as chemical compounds that are potentially hazardous for the environment if not disposed of properly. Currently, the electronics industry indicates a significant dependence on a state of regular replacement and consumption requiring a constant influx of new raw materials, thus creating an unsustainable situation for many devices which are integral to modern life. Addressing the issue of e-waste is key to the sustainability of Europe as many raw materials are non-renewable and limited in supply. Thus, the sustainability of the European ICT sector relies on the adoption of more environmentally-friendly practices that incorporate producing more durable devices as well as reusing existing ones.
6.Material for further research
Read this article from Euractiv explaining the difficulty many countries face meeting their recycling targets.
Watch this short overview from Huffpost about how consumers can mitigate their e-waste impact.
Read this article from Euronews about the problem of illegal e-waste disposal in EU countries.