The success of the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive has been called into question by a new report from the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) which warned that the UK's e-waste continues to end up in west African scrap yards.
Despite years of high-profile reports on the illegal shipment of non-recyclable electrical goods to countries such as Nigeria and Ghana, the practice is still going strong, according to the campaign group.
The WEEE Directive was introduced in 2007 to minimise the impact of e-waste on the environment by increasing reuse and recycling.
The legislation uses a 'polluter pays' principle, whereby IT manufacturers take on the environmental disposal responsibilities, either themselves or by signing up to a compliance scheme offered by one of the government-approved waste-handling firms.
The legislation stipulates that technical waste cannot be exported overseas, but that reusable electrical goods can be exported after undergoing testing.
However, rogue waste-handling firms are frequently mislabelling e-waste as working, using generic terms such as 'personal effects' or 'used household goods', according to the EIA report, System Failure: The UK's harmful trade in electronic waste.
The broken machines then end up in scrap yards in west Africa where they are stripped by workers to remove valuable components and metals. The workers, many of whom are children, are exposed to toxic fumes in the process.
The EIA investigation revealed that the e-waste black market involves players at every level, from small-time electronics brokers to large organisations, local councils and even major central government institutions.
EIA investigators hid trackers in used TVs entering Croydon and Merton council recycling centres. The TVs, which were deliberately disabled beyond repair, later appeared in Nigeria and Ghana. The EIA said they clearly showed no sign of having been tested prior to export.
Fin Walravens, EIA senior campaigner, said that the Environment Agency, which is responsible for enforcing WEEE, needs more funding and resources to clamp down on the illegal activity.
In 2008, the Environment Agency set up a unit to specifically tackle e-waste, which has since focused on prosecuting companies ignoring WEEE legislation. However, the government is now scaling down these efforts, according to Walravens.
"There are now around four people in the unit, down from 18," he told V3.co.uk. "The scale of the resources the government is giving the Environment Agency contradicts the scale of the problem."
The EIA is also calling on the government to review the Producer Compliance Scheme, and to commission a review of existing contracts between local authorities and the schemes to ensure that they have the means to carry out recycling.
The Environment Agency did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
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