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In 2020, 10.5 kg of electrical and electronic equipment waste were collected per inhabitant in the EU” – Eurostat

The Third and Fourth Industrial Revolutions were marked by the rise of technology. It has become a tool for economies and societies worldwide, to increase productivity. However, as any industry, it pollutes. Indeed, the part of digital in the emission of greenhouse gases worldwide keeps on increasing. We also acknowledge that any electrical and electronic equipment is not everlasting, which means it must be replaced somehow. It is important to observe the life cycle of these equipment in the EU and see if and how they are recycled, as they can be dangerous for the environment and people’s health.

Waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) in the EU

            The directive 2012/19/UE of the European Parliament and of the Council of 4 July 2012 on WEEE presents us the WEEE list : large and small household appliances, IT and telecommunications equipment, consumer equipment and photovoltaic panels, lighting equipment, electrical and electronic tools… In this, we can find daily objects we use, such as : refrigerators, washing machines, microwaves, computers, telephones, lamps, televisions, and even more.

            The goal of this directive is to promote the collection, treatment, recycling, and reuse of WEEE. WEEE is the object of a special collect, we cannot throw it in our bins as we do for plastic or cardboard. Indeed, if any object has the logo with a bin crossed out, we must throw these in landfill sites or any other specific place that collects it. Which makes WEEE in need of special rules. Moreover, in 2020, only 45,9% of WEEE were collected in the EU. The 45% collection rate target set up by the EU in 2016 is reached by nearly half of the countries of the EU. However, in 2019, the EU decided to raise it to a 65% collection rate target, and this one was only reached by 2 countries in in 2020 (Bulgaria, Slovakia).

To put it in numbers, this graphic is representative of WEEE put on the market and how much it was collected, treated, recovered, recycled and prepared for reuse :

Problems linked to WEEE

The main issue regarding WEEE is its collection. Indeed, as seen before in the graphic, not even half of WEEE is collected in the EU. When we observe the others rates after collecting WEEE, they are pretty high compared to the collection rate. Once WEEE are collected, 83,4% of it is recycled in the EU in 2020, which is pretty promising.

It makes us wonder what happens for the rest of WEEE that are not collected. They are either incarcerated or exported illegally in developing countries, where environmental laws are less strict. This dumping is hazardous as workers are exposed to toxins embedded in WEEE, and the grounds and air are polluted as well.

WEEE are dangerous when not treated. Indeed, according to Eurostat, hazardous WEEE represent 95% of WEEE in 2020. Which is why they must be collected and treated and recycled/reused if possible. Indeed, they cause harm to the environment and the health because of the toxic substances, and sending hazardous WEEE away in developping countries does not erase the issue, it only moves it elsewhere.

Solutions to a better gestion of WEEE

To resolve some of the problems, the EU commanded Apple to induce the USB-C universal charger for iPhones, tablets, and headphones. We can wonder if this standardization will reduce the waste. Indeed, creating an universal charger could reduce the number of chargers. But we must wonder what will happen to old chargers, that will also become WEEE, knowing that half of it is still not collected.

The WEEE’s issue is EU’s problem but also ours, as citizens. Indeed, we can keep our EEEs as long as possible, and try to fix it (if possible) instead of throwing it right away.

As a society, we must thrive for digital sobriety, which means reducing our consuming of EEEs devices. Easier said than done, especially in this society and economy that relies on the digital, but not impossible.

Finally, we must encourage digital transition and innovation, to promote more efficient and cheap equipment.

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A propos de Charlen Chapotot