The UK government has been accused of failing in its duty to enforce its own electronic waste regulations, following reports that large quantities of broken IT equipment are continuing to be dumped illegally in Africa.
Over a year after the introduction of the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive, experts claim that the legislation "lacks teeth" and that its enforcement body, the Environment Agency, is badly under funded.
The Environment Agency has only partially denied the accusations.
The WEEE directive states that IT manufacturers are legally responsible for the safe disposal of their products.
Manufacturers are obliged to ensure that all products are disposed of in an environmentally friendly manner themselves, or to sign up with a government-approved waste-handling firm.
However, a recent investigation by Greenpeace has revealed that large quantities of broken computers, monitors and TVs from manufacturers including Philips, Canon, Dell, Microsoft, Nokia, Siemens and Sony are being illegally shipped to Africa to end up in scrap yards in Ghana.
The broken machines are stripped, crushed and burned by workers, many of whom are children, to remove the valuable components and metals.
Greenpeace claims that this process not only pollutes local water tables, but exposes workers to potentially toxic dust and fumes.
Critics claim that the shipment of the broken goods is clearly illegal, but that the Environment Agency is shying away from its enforcement role and lacks the resources adequately to police the new rules.
Martin Hojsik, toxics campaigner at Greenpeace International, and the man behind a lot of the research, said that he had found equipment from the NHS, local councils, schools and universities in the Ghanaian dumps.
A spokesman for the Department of Health maintained that it was not directly accountable for the equipment found in Ghana, arguing that it was the responsibility of local health trusts to ensure WEEE compliance.
A spokesman for the Environment Agency acknowledged that there were funding issues, adding that the "complexity" of the legislation had made policing difficult.
Tony Roberts, founder and director of development at Computer Aid International, agreed that the agency is too low on resources to enforce WEEE.
"The Environment Agency has no staff to oversee those who knowingly flout the WEEE directive, he said.
Roberts has worked with the Environment Agency in his role at Computer Aid, a charity that distributes refurbished computers for reuse in developing countries. He believes that problem with the WEEE legislation is that it "has no teeth".
Critics suggest that the situation is likely to worsen in the wake of Defra budget cuts earlier this year that saw the Environment Agency slash funding for waste management programmes by 38 per cent.
The move was criticised earlier this week by the House of Lords which urged the government to reverse budget cuts to green business support agencies.
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