Pushing the right buttons to solve Europe’s e-waste crisis 

As new data shed a light on the impacts of electrical and electronic waste, civil society calls on the EU to curtail the damage, Roberta Arbinolo reports.

Demand for electronics is booming, and so are its impacts on human health, environment and climate.  

New Eurostat figures released this week show that the amount of electronics put on the market in Europe increased by more than 85% between 2013-2021. More than 13 million tonnes of electrical and electronic equipment were sold in 2021 across the EU, with the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, France and Belgium recording the highest consumption per person. 

The amount of e-waste registered in the same year was 4.9 million tonnes – 3.9% more than in 2020 – while inadequate collection in many countries leads to large quantities of electrical and electronic waste (WEEE) entering wrong waste streams, or being illegally dumped in nature or exported beyond the EU. 

To address Europe’s mounting e-waste crisis, 27 environmental NGOs are urging the European Commission to establish a material footprint reduction target for electronics and promptly update EU regulations on e-waste.

Heavy footprints

Europe’s overconsumption of electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) poses significant environmental and health risks throughout their lifecycle, from raw material sourcing to production, use and disposal. These risks are exacerbated when equipment has a short lifespan, is difficult to repair, or is improperly discarded.  

The surging demand for electronic devices drives excessive extraction and exhaustion of precious natural resources, at a high human and environmental cost. 

Moreover, it escalates energy demand and associated emissions. A recent report by the European Parliamentary group of the Greens/EFA shows that the European use of digital technologies accounts for 40% of Europe’s GHG emissions budget to stay below the 1.5°C temperature increase established by the Paris Agreement. 

As devices reach the end of their operational life, inadequate collection and improper disposal result in missed opportunities for reuse and recycling, and the release of harmful pollutants into the air, water and soil. 

10 steps to lead Europe out of its e-waste crisis 

As the boom of the digital sector boosts the demand for more electric and electronic devices, untangling Europe’s e-waste dilemma is not as simple as pressing a single button. Green NGOs have identified 10 crucial steps to lead the EU out of this crisis, and they call on the European Commission to swiftly adopt them. 

The first step is the establishment of material footprint reduction targets to help keep the environmental impacts of electric and electronic equipment within planetary boundaries. 

Fanny Rateau, Programme Manager at the Environmental Coalition on Standards (ECOS), told META: “Our electronics consumption keeps increasing without any consideration for our planet’s capacity. E-waste is piling up – not being reused, not being repaired. The embedded precious metals will not find their way back into the ground. On average, every person in the EU adds more than 16kg of electronic waste to Europe’s e-waste mountain every year, but the WEEE Directive is too weak to limit the environmental damage. It must be rapidly revamped to match the scale of the problem and ensure that we live within our means.” 

Then, the Commission should promote ecodesign principles to minimise environmental impacts from the design phase. This is about making electronics more long-lasting and repairable, and ensure that components such as batteries, displays lamps and other wear parts can be easily removed, replaced and recovered. 

Notably, NGOs call on the European Commission to consider horizontal ecodesign requirements for all products, that should be complemented by more product-specific requirements. 

A mandatory digital product passport should provide consumers with essential information to facilitate re-use, repurposing, remanufacturing, or the recovery of components and materials. 

EEE should also be made toxic-free by design, such as omitting flame retardants that often offer negligible fire safety advantages, and hazardous pollutants like ‘forever chemicals’ (PFAS). When the use of concerning substances is unavoidable, transparency should be guaranteed. 

To help consumers make the most of their devices, a fundamental ‘right to repair’ must be ratified by EU legislation and applied to electric and electronic equipment. Set to be voted in the European Parliament this November, this includes direct access to repair information and spare parts for both independent repairers and consumers. A repair index could also be prescribed to help consumers assess the durability of the products they buy. 

Another essential step is promoting reuse: this can be done by setting specific reuse targets on top of separate collection and recycling objectives, as it is already the case in several EU countries and regions, from France and Spain to Belgium’s Flanders and Wallonia. A recent study on return schemes of mobile phones, tablets and other small EEE highlights the significant potential of such targets in terms of environmental and economic benefits. 

Edoardo Bodo, Environmental Policy Officer at RREUSE, said: “Every time a functional piece of equipment is prematurely recycled instead of being repaired, we squander economic value and deplete valuable resources, while missing the opportunity to move towards a more circular economy. Hence the significance of establishing re-use targets in the next revision of the WEEE Directive, as a clear commitment to stop destroying our used electronics instead of giving them a new life.” 

Besides empowering consumers, the way out of Europe’s electronic waste crisis passes by holding producers more accountable for the end-of-life treatment of the EEE they put on the market. These Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes should include modulated fees that incentivise circular design and waste prevention, as is already happening in many countries. 

Barbara Metz, Executive Director at German NGO Deutsche Umwelthilfe, said: “Producers of electronics must bear more responsibility for the environmental problems caused by their products. (…) Producers offering short-lived and poorly repairable equipment should also bear higher costs.” 

“Online-platforms should also be held accountable through full liability and due diligence, since suppliers on these platforms often evade their legal obligations”, she added. 

EPR fees should also be used to finance the costs associated with WEEE exported outside the EU, while the shipment of items for reuse must undergo stricter control and reporting, to rule out illegal exports of e-waste to the Global South. 

Another important step is to enhance the collection of WEEE across the continent. The EU set a 65% target for the separate collection of WEEE, but data from 2019 reveal most governments fail to attain this. The result is that up to 4.8 million tonnes of WEEE are disposed improperly every year

Fynn Hauschke, Policy Officer on Circular Economy and Waste at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), said: “Almost every EU Member State fails to reach e-waste collection targets. There is an urgent need for more consumer-friendly separate collection systems, consumer education, and new financial incentives for actors to achieve high collection rates.” 

At the same time, civil society calls on the European Commission to set modern requirements for treatment, collection, logistics, and preparation for re-use of WEEE, as the current ones from 2002 are outdated and inconsistently implemented. 

The last important step to lead Europe out of its e-waste crisis is to ban the destruction of unsold electronics. Tonnes of unsold or returned products are destroyed every year by producers and online retailers, and with the rise of e-commerce and consumeristic business strategies, the trend is set to worsen dramatically. Civil society demands a “duty of care” for producers and retailers across the EU, to ensure that unsold goods are not just recycled, but resold or refurbished. While countries like Belgium, France and Germany have already engaged at the national level to prevent valuable products from going up in smoke, campaigners warn that such measures need to be upscaled at the single-market level to be truly effective. 

Hauschke commented: “The Commission must ban the destruction of unsold goods at the EU level. We cannot afford to waste perfectly viable products while depleting precious resources to make new ones.”