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The illegal trade in Electronic Waste


The intercontinental trade in end-of-life Waste electrical and electronic equipment continues unabated in the UK and Europe, with much of the waste ending up in developing countries that lack the infrastructure to recycle it. Even after a decade of the illegal trade being pursued by governments as it skirts around the globe, networks and organisations trading in the equipment continue to function and flourish, aided in part by relatively recent legislation, all designed to encourage recycling and to a lesser extent re-use.
Whilst the European Waste framework directive actively enforces the recovery of wastes as opposed to landfill- via the enforcement of per capita targets and the threat of sanctions, it’s entire ethos is being undermined by the mis-use of producer regulations associated with WEEE. Statute legislation requires the application of the Waste Hierarchy, which expressly calls for re-use as a preference to recycling. Consequently, operators are free to “bundle” waste electronics under the premise of “working” equipment, irrespective of age, and ship consignments outside of the UK (and EU) as a means to reducing overheads.. 

International Laws:


The UK government, like other EU member states are bound by a specific international convention that governs the movement of materials or bulk shipments of wastes. In effect a treaty on the movement of hazardous wastes, the Basel Convention was drawn up in 1989 and came into force in 1992. An international treaty, it prohibits the movement of hazardous wastes from developed to less developed countries. Whilst this treaty has had significant impact upon the movement of certain wastes, it has had little effect upon the trade in end of life or near end of life electronic wastes.
Highlighted as a serious issue during the first decade of this century, the trade in waste electronics was first seen as an issue in Pakistan and India and more recently China. However, whilst these countries have seen fit to impose tighter laws on the importation of e-waste, the trade continues in Africa, where Ghana has become a “hot spot” for dumping and open burning of the waste. As a result, State parties of the sub-continent held a conference on June 2013, the outcome of which was to prevent the “importation and dumping of hazardous e-waste and near end-of-life EEE”. This revision to the Bamako Convention goes further than any previous agreement in that it calls for a full and broad definition to be applied to the term “Hazardous Waste”. This in effect brings signatory states in line with the EU in that the same Annex Definitions are to be applied as those defined in the EU/ UK Hazardous Waste regulations (see: “What Computer Wastes are Hazardous”). As such, given the treatment processes applied to such wastes in Africa, even plastics could be considered hazardous. Unfortunately, only a handful of African states are signatories to the convention with the remainder abstaining from membership.
UK exports:
According to a recent report by the EIA (named: System Failure), “An estimated 75 per cent of e-waste generated in the EU, equivalent to eight million tonnes a year, is unaccounted for”. Furthermore, as highlighted in both this report and that of the Bamako Convention, countries at the receiving end of this waste lack the infrastructure to treat, recycle or recover it.

Representatives at the Bamako Convention were cited in a recent report as stating “We don’t want your used computers, by the time they reach us, they’ve got little life left in them”.

Where it comes from:

The EIA cites sources for this waste as “When companies and organisations get rid of old equipment. Many recycling companies offer to collect and recycle obsolete electronics equipment from businesses. A lot of them offer a range of services, including data-wiping, and operate according to the law, but others sell on the e-waste they collect rather than recycle it themselves.” Evidence shows the UK has a persistent problem with e-waste trafficking, which involves selling the waste on, untreated to third parties for export. The UK produces two million tonnes of e-waste a year, comprising more than six million electrical and electronic items. Severe leakage of this e-waste onto the black market occurs and industry sources estimate up to half of all computers discarded in the UK enter illegal trade streams.
To Note:
The trade in waste electronics has already had an impact on the UK financially, drawing down funds to fund recycling operations in Africa. Similarly, it’s caused brand damage to local authorities, NHS trusts and a number of Businesses. Waste IT has been found in dumps in less developed countries with intact Asset IDs and clear identifiers detailing their point of origin. Notably, enforcement action has been limited in part due to the use of third parties in the movement of the wastes between source and destination country. The polluter pays principle appears to stop at the doorstep to the EU.
Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA):
Bamako Convention, First Session, June 2013:
Basel Convention on the transboundary Movement of Hazardous Wastes:

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