Electronic waste – Europe living beyond its means

The dogma of unlimited and perpetual growth wrongly suggests to consumers that they should buy new electronic products regularly, in order to keep the economy ticking over.

Every month, a new generation of mobile phones is launched on the market and every year thousands and thousands of new computers, microwaves, televisions and clock radios are brought into homes in order to make everyday life easier and more complex at the same time. But have you ever wondered what happens to your electronic device once you have replaced it with a new, even easier-to-use machine? Where do all those smart phones and washing machines go once modern society has pronounced them useless?

Well, the amount of waste electrical and electronic equipment in the European Union is rapidly growing. An estimated 10 million tonnes of electronic waste is produced each year and we are still counting. We are throwing away ever more electronic gadgets and often fail to recover the valuable raw materials contained in them. In recent decades, a throwaway society has been created which is based on an unnatural use of resources that is completely unsustainable.

For a long time, the industrialised nations have been living beyond their means. People in developed countries maintain this unsustainable lifestyle at the expense of poorer countries. The EU’s dogma of unlimited and perpetual growth suggests to consumers that they should buy new electronic products more often, in order to keep the economy ticking over. The producers take their share by installing programmed breaking points in the machines and devices so that consumers are obliged to buy new products regularly. Many of the old electronic devices end up on waste dumps in the southern countries of the globe. Electronic waste has an impact on both people and the environment. It pollutes and poisons. It is not easy to break with the dogma of unlimited growth.

However, the new EU directive on waste electrical and electronic equipment now addresses part of the problem. It sets common objectives and parameters for the treatment of this waste. At the legislation’s second-reading, the European Parliament last week voted for this directive. I welcome the outcome of this vote, even if it came as no surprise to me. As a member of the Environment Committee – I participated in the negotiations between the European Parliament, the European Council and the European Commission for quite some time. The result was a compromise, which was supported by all political groups in the parliament.

One reason for the success of the new rules was the implementation of an extended scope. Over the next six years, the directive will be extended to all electrical and electronics equipment; even photovoltaic panels. The collection target will be raised to 85 per cent for all electronic waste. I am very happy about that given that the council tried to keep this limit down. And some interesting news for consumers: from now on, they can give back small electronic devices in stores of a certain size – 400sqm – for free. German consumers are familiar with this practice already, with used batteries. This will certainly help to reduce the amount of electronic waste in households, because so far consumers have to pay if they bring old devices to recycling stations.

Unfortunately, the Environment Committee did not manage to maintain its strict conditions for export – which now results in a weakened compromise on the illegal export of electronic waste. In addition, used devices containing nano-materials will not be treated separately. The commission is simply invited to carry out research on whether the EU should do so in the future. This is a very soft phrase and is of uncertain value. Nevertheless, I am satisfied with the results. The parliament’s persistence during the negotiations with the council has paid off. All in all, the best way to reduce the huge amount of electrical and electronic waste is to simplify your life. Think before you buy any product and ask yourself whether you really need it. Replace disposable products, if possible, with reusable ones like – for example – batteries, ink cartridges, water or coffee filters.

Der Artikel von Sabine Wils erschien am 24. Januar 2012 im PublicService Europa Magazin, die vollständige URL lautet: http://www.publicserviceeurope.com/article/1394/electronic-waste-europe-living-beyond-its-means